Am I getting softer as I get older? I asked this to myself a lot during a recent viewing of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003)—the most important South Korean movie of the 2000s, and a touchstone of my high-school-age cinephilia. Seeing it for the first time as an 11th grader, I was transfixed by what felt like a ferociously original vision. Seeing it again a few days before my 29th birthday, it still felt like a virtuosic piece of filmmaking, but I kept wondering: has it always been quite so… unpleasant?
Based on anecdotal evidence, Oldboy was one of the few subtitled movies that penetrated the consciousness of an average high-schooler in the mid- to late-2000s. Like Pulp Fiction, Requiem for a Dream, Fight Club, and other movies that speak loudly to teenage boys, it has a mannered, ostentatious style that announces the presence of a force behind the camera, and is loaded with memorable set-pieces and #OnePerfectShots (the two most iconic ones: lead actor Choi Min-sik eating a live octopus, and the single-take scene in which he fights an army of henchmen with a hammer). It carries a capital-T Theme—Vengeance—that Park Chan-wook explored in a loose trilogy of films, announcing him as a capital-A Auteur with capital-P Preoccupations. It arrived on these shores with the approval of Quentin Tarantino, who was president of the jury that awarded Oldboy the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. Though based on a Japanese manga—not the most prestigious of art forms—its allusions to Greek tragedy and its Cannes pedigree gave it a certain highbrow legitimacy. Oldboy also quickly became the flagship film of the burgeoning South Korean film industry, which seemed to carry the energy and vitality that the once-trendy Hong Kong film industry had lost (and with even more of the sex and violence that had characterized Hong Kong cinema’s heyday).
That energy dominated my memory of Oldboy much more than the film’s notoriously sadistic violence. I remembered Park’s operatic tone and Choi Min-sik’s turbocharged performance as giving the film a heightened, unreal quality, along with the plot’s increasingly absurd twists and turns (climaxing in revelations of an elaborate 15-year revenge plot involving hypnotism and incest). I still think Oldboy is arresting, but I frankly expected it to be more fun. Why did I find it so depressing and unpleasant this time?
In general, I’ve felt myself getting more sensitive to extreme violence as I’ve gotten older. Seeing Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog 10 years ago in an Intro to Film class, I took its concentration camp footage in stride. After seeing it again more recently, I’ve been unable to shake the images from the aftermath of the Nazis’ human experiments, especially the bucket of severed hands. I had a similar experience when I revisited that old slumber-party curio Faces of Death expecting to have a laugh, and instead felt strongly affected by the grisly dogfight sequence early in the film. Oldboy has nothing as troubling as those scenes, but consider the end of the famous hammer fight: after Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) defeats the mob of henchmen, an elevator door opens to reveal a whole new mob of henchmen; cut to another floor of the building: the elevator door opens, the henchmen’s bodies pour out, and Dae-su emerges unscathed. There was a time when I would have focused on Dae-su, but now I look more at the bodies. Rather than alleviating the violence, Park Chan-wook’s visual style—dominated by dingy burgundy, moss, and brown shades—gives the film a heaviness. The visual style is not inappropriate to the material (this is, after all, a story of Vengeance Consuming The Human Soul), but again: not very fun.
The film also reminds me of high-school in a way that’s off-putting, and rooted in an ugliness in the spirit of its story. Oldboy follows the tragedy of Oh Dae-su, a drunken lout who is arrested for disorderly conduct on the night of his daughter’s fourth birthday. After he is released, Dae-su mysteriously vanishes. He awakens in a garishly-decorated one-room apartment, where he will spend the next 15 years without charge or explanation. He is fed daily meals of fried dumplings, and monitored by surveillance cameras so that he cannot commit suicide. To pass the time, he is provided a TV, from which he learns that he has been framed for the murder of his wife. He spends 15 years creating an inventory of the people he has wronged, watching and masturbating to television (“The TV is both a clock and a calendar. It’s your school, your home, your church, your friend, and your lover”), and punching the wall—partly as self-harm, partly to build his strength. Eventually he is released, again without explanation, and embarks on a journey to find out why he was detained. He asks, “Can 15 years’ worth of imaginary training be put to use?” and when he picks a fight with a gang of hoodlums, the answer is affirmative. Later, he visits a restaurant and is befriended by a young chef, the kind and caring Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong). She takes him back to her apartment, and he pathetically tries to sexually assault her (again asking, “Can 15 years’ worth of imaginary training be put to use?”). He is deeply ashamed, but she reassures him that she led him on, and that she’ll eventually put out—a ghastly scene not completely redeemed by the eventual revelation that she has been hypnotized to fall in love with him.
Though Oldboy was relatively common-knowledge among high-schoolers of the 2000s, it was mostly popular amongst a certain kind of teenage boy. If you’ll allow me to paint with broad strokes: like Oh Dae-su, this teenage boy spends a lot of time in a confined space, waiting patiently for his release. He may feel like he is misunderstood by an indifferent world, and he may pass a lot of time with TV or the internet—a technology unavailable to poor Oh Dae-su. Through the internet, he may spend a lot of time developing knowledge of a range of esoteric subjects, with the hope that eventually his many years’ worth of “imaginary training can be put to use,” and their unacknowledged genius will be recognized. And regardless of how the climactic twists complicate matters, Mi-do is virginal, endlessly supportive, and in need of a benevolent male protector—in other words, the ideal mate for a certain kind of boy. (Lest I sound like I’m painting a self-portrait, I should say that my own high school experience was a fairly happy one. Even so, I was definitely a teenager who spent a lot of time on the internet building esoteric knowledge, so I was not immune to feeling a little isolated and out-of-place.) I was reminded that Seung-Hui Choi, the 23-year-old student who perpetrated the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, re-enacted the image of Oh Dae-su wielding a hammer in one of his video manifestos.
If you feel isolated and misunderstood, you may start to feel like you’re Holden Caulfield, and can see the phonies for who they really are. Oldboy has a streak of smirking nihilism—that life’s a pile of shit, but we’re the ones who see it for what it really is—that flatters this high-school sensibility, and that is less impressive to me in my dotage. When Oh Dae-su is released from confinement, he wakes up on the roof of an apartment building, where he encounters a man who is on the brink of suicide. Desperate to connect with another human, Dae-su insists the suicidal man sit with him and listen to his story. After Dae-su is finished, the suicidal man begins to tell his own story, and Dae-su coldly walks away. As Dae-su walks away from the building, the man plummets to his death behind him. Dae-su pauses, but doesn’t look back. In the voiceover narration, he says: “Laugh.. and the world laughs with you. Weep… and you weep alone.”