Oldboy is filled with violence and gore, but through all that, a shot of a decapitated octopus struggling to strangle its killer’s hand is probably the most gruesome and shocking. It has been torn apart, yet its tentacles are squirming and latching on to anything they can reach. It is fighting for its life, a life it has already lost. Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-Sik), the man eating the live octopus, is also fighting for a life that has been lost. His own.
For fifteen years he has been imprisoned in a hotel-like room. It has a TV set, a comfortable bed, a desk, a bathroom, carpeted floors, room service. For all intents and purposes, it’s decent living. The only thing is, he has no idea what he’s doing there or who put him there, or why. He’s been alone, the only link to the outside world being the television. Through the television, he’s learnt that the world has been changing without him, that his wife has been murdered and that he is the prime suspect (before his imprisonment, he was a raging alcoholic who expressed himself through insanity rather than violence). His daughter has grown up and vanished, apparently under the care of Swedish foster parents. Everything has been taken from him, and he doesn’t know why.
He spends his days working out, fighting, punching the brick wall to bleed his knuckles, and then to harden them. He tattoos the days into his hands, and he has hallucinations of being devoured by ravenous ants. Every night gas is pumped into the room, and it knocks him out. The following morning, his clothes have been changed, the room has been tidied, and his hair has been cut.
Eventually he figures there must be a way out. He digs into the brick wall only to find that there is nothing but fresh air and fresh rain on the other side. He’s many floors up–“Even if I plunge to my death, I’ll still be getting out”. But before he can make his great escape, he is set free.
And so begins his quest to find the ones responsible. He starts to question himself: Who could have hated me enough to want me locked up for so many years? He meets a cute sushi chef, Mi-Do (Kang Hye-Jung), who takes him to her apartment and befriends him. They fall in love. For the first time in fifteen years–maybe more–he feels compassion, he feels the warmth of another human being. Even though his mind is set on revenge, his body is still eager for connection.
As his searches provide more and more answers, the truth about his captors becomes more insidious. It reaches a point where we begin to think that maybe his life would have been better off if he had escaped the prison before being released. He is sucked into a whirlwind of twists and turns, and when he is faced with his captors directly, wicked truths surface. We learn that revenge is not a dish best served cold, it is served with revenge. Straight up revenge. You destroy my life, I destroy yours. It is how the world works. Oldboy simply puts it into perspective for us.
Or does it?
Director Park Chan-Wook paces the movie so intensely that for most of it, we are struggling to keep up with every new revelation. Sometimes perspective is lost, but it is still there, lurking beneath. Oldboy makes us think, not just about Dae-Su, but about ourselves. It takes us right into the mind, heart, and soul of a tormented man, and refuses to give us a way out. Instead, we are bound to his fate, watching him fight for his survival as he begs and pleads with his abusers.
In the movie’s third act, it is difficult to stomach what happens, but it differs from the previous two acts in that it opens up doors of sympathy towards Dae-Su. For the first time, we are really drawn to feel sorry for him. But then something happens; Park does something sneaky. He makes the bad guy–Dae-Su’s captor–exhibit feelings of regret, maybe even remorse. Of course, I will not tell you why. But Park keeps the gears changing by constantly shifting the dimensions of his characters.
Choi Min-Sik, one of South Korea’s most revered actors, delivers a performance unlike any other. In one movie, he embodies a disgusting drunkard, a deranged captive, a suave and cool hunter–in his iconic black suit, lion hair, and hammer–a forlorn lover, and a desperate man who has been broken down to pieces. He is so effortlessly convincing that not once do we question the believability of his character. The movie is about him, so it’s only right that he be given the freedom to stretch his legs. He is who he is, and we love it.
Oldboy doesn’t teach us anything. It only shows us the consequences of revenge. One man seeks vengeance for being imprisoned, while the man who imprisons him does so because he seeks to exact his own vengeance. The result is not good, to say the least.
When accepting the Grand Prix of the Jury at Cannes, Park thanked his cast and crew, like any good director would. And then he thanked the four octopuses that gave their lives for the movie. They should know that their sacrifice wasn’t in vain. They died so that a man, who had been dead for fifteen years, could live.
Best Moment | There are many. The famous single-shot fight scene in the corridor is awesome.
Worst Moment | As much as the filmmakers lamented it, and even though Min-Sik said a prayer before eating each one, seeing a live animal being eaten is not fun. Not fun at all.