Oldboy-Ultra Violent Tale from Korea

Cannes Film Fest 2005–Winner of Cannes Festival's Special Jury Prize, Oldboy, the latest film by the talented Korean director Park Chanwook, is so preposterously plotted and so bloodthirsty in its violence that it's not likely to gain the director any new fans beyond the global film festival circuit. Be warned: Watching Oldboy calls for a strong stomach that even vet critics couldn't take in Cannes, where it world-premiered. (In the film's most outrageous scene, the hero swallows a live octopus!

Decidedly not for the squeamish, Oldboy displays a bravura visual style, with set pieces that get increasingly more impressive and decreasingly more incongruent; at a certain point, you just sit and watch with a sense of continuous bewilderment and disbelief.

Plunging into a world in which taboos are invoked only to be transgressed, and unknowing individuals desperately fend off a tyrannical fate, Park has arguably made his most outstanding and shocking feature in an impressive career that began in 1992.

Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is an ordinary Seoul businessman with a wife and little daughter who, after a drunken night on the town, is locked up in a strange, private “prison” for 15 years; no one will tell him why he is there and whom his jailer is. However, he is kept in reasonably comfortable quarters and is even give a TV set to keep him company.

While watching TV, Dae-su discovers that he has been framed for his wife's murder and realizes that, during one of the occasions in which he was knocked out with gas, someone has drawn blood from him and left it at the scene of the crime. The imprisonment lasts for 15 years, until Dae-su finds himself unexpectedly deposited on a grass-covered high-rise rooftop.

Determined to discover who his mysterious enemy is, Dae-su gets a clue when a homeless man hands him a cell phone and a wallet full of cash. Later, while eating in a Japanese restaurant, the phone rings and an anonymous voice challenges him to find the reason for his imprisonment.

Dae-su blacks out only to awaken in the apartment of the restaurant's pretty waitress, Mido (Gang Hye-jung). Mido helps him search for his hidden prison, but one night, Dae-su finds Mido exchanging emails with a mysterious stranger who seems to know all about him. Convinced that Mido is betraying him, he continues the search on his own.

Dae-su locates his former prison and beats up the gangsters who served as his captors. A tape offers clues as to his enemy's motives, but not to his identity. Dae-su blacks out on the street and after being helped into a cab by his mysterious, but still unnamed foe, he ends up back at Mido's. An old friend who owns a cyber helps Dae-su discover that Mido's emailer, “Evergreen”, is indeed the man who had him locked up.

Dae-su is enraged by Mido's apparent betrayal, but a face-to-face confrontation with his smooth-talking adversary ends with Dae-Su's conviction that she is innocent. The man gives Dae-su five days to discover his identity and the motivation for his imprisonment. He is told that if he succeeds, the man will kill himself; if he does not, he will kill Mido.

Final clues lead Dae-su back to his old high school, where he discovers that his enemy is fellow graduate Lee Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae), whose sister, Soo-ah (Yoon Jin-seo), committed suicide years before. Dae-su confronts Lee in his ultra-modern penthouse apartment, only to discover that his enemy's tortures are just beginning.

The story begins credibly enough, on the birthday of Dae-su's infant daughter, when the otherwise normal man is making such a drunken nuisance at a police station that only the arrival of his friend Joo-hwan (Chi Dae-han) saves him from a night in jail. Dae-su however, has only been saved for another imprisonment, as he learns when he wakes in comfortable but ironclad cell in an unknown prison for unknown reasons.

The tale is not devoid of humor, as when a confused but in need of the money Dae-su dashes into a Japanese restaurant where he orders “something alive” to eat. Minutes later, he scarves down a live octopus, but passes out before he can finish it, flailing tentacles dripping from his mouth.

That the protagonist blacks out and passes out one too many times is only part of the problem. Radical changes in tone, from sadistic revenge to masochistic punishment, and from severe violent scenes to softer and romantic ones, shoud present a challenge to most viewers.

Harsh critics will dismiss Oldboy as a futile exercise in “cinema of cruelty and excess.” However, more tolerant critics should be able to see that, despite the insanely violent plot, the movie boasts healthy dosage of black (and bleak humor) and existentialist angst that cannot be entirely dismissed, even if the identity puzzle at the center of the film, is too callous for its own good.

Park began directing with “Moon Is Sun's Dream,” a story of young people on the run, a theme he continued with his second film, “3 Members.” His first commercial success was “JSA: Joint Security Area” in 2000. Rather than follow-up with another popular venture, Park made Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), a multiple-revenge saga that combine a strange sense of loss with moments of startling violence. “Oldboy” continues to explore many of the themes first examined in “Mr. Vengeance,” spinning them out into even more baroque patterns.

Park belongs to a group of prominent Korean directors that includes Kim Ji-Woon, whose “A Tale of Two Sisters” was a hit, Kim Ki-Duk, whose films include the international art house hit “Spring, Summer Fall and Spring,” that played well in the U.S., the controversial “Samaria” (aka “Samaritan Girl”), and the upcoming “3-Iron.”

These filmmakers have divergent backgrounds. Park, studied philosophy, while Kim Ki-Duk is a product of the working class, but they all came to maturity during one of the harshest, most repressive eras in South Korean history. That era's chief political figure, Chun Doo Hwan, was a general who assumed power in 1979 in a military coup and was responsible for the arrest, torture and death of thousands of students, workers, labor leaders and other opponents of the regime.

Park was 20 at the time of what became know as the Kwangju Rebellion, which had a strong impact on Koreans of his generation. Within the Korean Confucian tradition, students, professors and intellectuals hold a special position as a sort of public conscience. When Chun's former security chief became the country's leader and closed the universities, it represented a major upheaval of traditional roles. As the Kwangju Rebellion became a dissident cry, anti-Americanism surged, based on what was perceived as America's embrace of the Chun regime.

Not surprisingly, when that era's students and workers became filmmakers, they viewed Korean society and its rigid authority in a merciless way yet they wouldn't always use explicitly political themes in their films. Park's “JSA: Joint Security Area,” set in the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ), where South and North Korean troops have been face-to-face for half a century, is one of the few movies to examine the military through a class perspective. The movie's action is built around the death of a South Korean soldier and the wounding of another as they run back to the DMZ from the North Korean side. Though compelling, the movie didn't satisfy Park's goal to expose the underlying violence in Korean life.

This was left for his next film, “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” in which a deaf-and-mute foundry worker is laid off, just when he needs money to pay for his dying sister's kidney transplant. Desperate, he kidnaps his former boss's daughter, hoping to claim a small but sufficient ransom. But the kidnapping goes horribly awry, and the kidnapper becomes a victim of his boss's vengeance, just as the boss was the target of his former employee's. Park takes aim at Korea's criminal class, the medical establishment, and other violent radical groups. At several junctures of the story, the oncoming tragedy could be averted by a simple act of generosity, but the characters favor class and group loyalty over empathy and honesty.

I mentioned Park's previous films because he is a talented director whose work is still obscure in the U.S. With Oldboy, Park turns up the heat again, focusing less on a social tapestry than on one individual's psychology. Dae-Su is an unexceptional businessman whose incarceration by an unknown enemy and subsequent “freedom” results in the destruction of his identity. Park depicts the psychological cost of Dae-Su's predicament, which involves trampling social taboos, as Dae-Su and his opponent become obsessed with revenge to the exclusion of other values. Each is willing to wager his sanity and life for vengeance, ultimately winning and losing in their own way.

“Oldboy” confirms Park's penchant for depicting minds under excruciating pressure, for exploring unbalanced social dimensions that inevitably lead to the formation of a disturbed psyche. Combining anger and detachment with a flamboyant gift for kinetic violence and energetic movement, Park is a stylist who excels at turning otherwise off-putting scenes into more compelling and even humorous. In its good moments, Oldboy achieves the rare feat of being both quintessentially local and disturbingly universal. No wonder, Tarantino, who was president of the Cannes jury last year, admires the film.