Director: Park Chan-wook
By Roderick Heath
Revenge is an ugly thing, and the violence used to accomplish it grotesque and self-consuming. Such is the truism nearly as old in literature as literature itself. Sophocles and Euripides evoked the theme. Shakespeare and the Jacobeans interrogated it in depth. Park Chan-wook stomps it into the ground. Many critics, discussing films like this, pass that notion around as if it’s something original and newly crucial. Of course, questions of revenge and films about it gained a curious urgency after 9/11 and the general atmosphere of the War on Terror. Suddenly, men and women were mercilessly ripping their way through hordes of bad guys, looking en route into their own hearts of darkness in films as diverse and tonally incompatible as Kill Bill, Man on Fire, The Punisher, Spider-Man and on and on, and schoolmarmish worry faces were made by critics and filmmakers like the excruciatingly boring Michael Haneke, pointing out that our love of onscreen violence is feeding into our general bloodlust and making us tools of political violence.
The ethical problem that ought to be examined, and yet often remains unexamined is what is the difference between justice and revenge? If justice is not forthcoming, is revenge permissible? Do they not share the same philosophical roots in social theory? Is not the idea that what goes around comes around central to all notions of communal existence? What are our moral concerns anyway? What do we wish to defend? Do we wish to defend anything? Without gods to command us, how and why do we maintain standards of human decency? With gods to command us, how do we balance our duty to moral prescription with a merely human desire for evening the score and protecting the security of our lives? None of these questions will be answered by watching a Chan-wook Park film.
Chan-wook is a fashionable figure, and Oldboy is currently sitting at #118 on the IMDb’s Top 250 list. His Vengeance trilogy—Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003), and Lady Vengeance (2005)—are something like Stations of the Cross for their maker, a devout Catholic. But his films must not in any way, shape, or form be mistaken for ethical or theological investigations: they are sadomasochistic engines of masturbation for violence freaks pretending to be moral fables, each of them acts of unadorned savagery served out by ludicrous characters in ludicrous situations. Normally, I’d let that stand. To engage and work through our darker notions is one of the primal attractions of the cinema—and art in general. Art has no imperative to be moral or even fair. It’s all about context and balance. Of the Vengeance trilogy, the most bearable is Lady Vengeance, chiefly because the central character is the best-conceived avatar of Chan-wook’s concerns, a woman who balances saintliness and devilishness in equal proportions, lets each fight within her, and channels a century’s worth of onscreen feminine martyrs into her image in the process.
Oldboy, at the other extreme, is one of the worst, most repugnant, pointless, and wrongheaded films I’ve ever sat through. Two hours of imprisonment, teeth-pulling, bone cracking, hammer beatings, stick lashings, incestuous couplings, tongue-slicing, and altogether merciless assault on all human nature could be withstood and even admired if any of it made a lick of sense. But the film’s Jacobean excesses are merely that—excesses. There’s no sense of rhythm or steady ground where the yardsticks needed to care can be planted. What any of this means in terms of society and the individual, which even in a play as bad as Titus Andronicus is still the vital question, is never suggested. Oldboy exists in a vacuum of cause and effect, meaning and imperative.
Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik) is a tipsy, talkative businessman who, after being briefly picked up by the cops with his friend No Joo-hwan (Ji Dae-han), makes a phone call home to his daughter and then vanishes. He’s been spirited inside a strange prison cell that has been decorated like a normal apartment, where he spends the next 15 years being subjected to occasional gassings and hypnotism. With a television as his only friend, he learns a lot from it, endlessly imitating the fights he watches on it and becoming an adept martial artist. Right at the point when he manages to carve a hole in the wall, he’s released, awakening on a rooftop inside a suitcase. Stumbling through the world, he enters a sushi restaurant and encounters a pretty young chef, Mido (Kang Hye-jeong), and faints after consuming a live octopus and receiving an enigmatic phone call from his antagonist.
Mido inexplicably takes this middle-aged weirdo in and aids him as he contacts Joo-hwan and sets about tracking down his enemy. He locates the imprison-your-enemy business run by Park Cheol-woong (Dal-su Oh), whose teeth he rips out to extract information about who had him locked up there before battling his way out through a horde of Park’s thugs. Dae-su never suspects that his quarry is a step ahead of him all the time, set on leading him and Mido into the most grotesque of traps. Dae-Su’s persecutor proves to be someone who went to the same school, Evergreen (their alumni homepage is called “Evergreen Old Boys”). He is one Woo-jin Lee (Yu Ji-tae), a tycoon who has sought to destroy Dae-Su’s life because Dae-Su had, in a youthful moment he had forgotten, spied Lee and his sister Lee Soo-ah (Yun Jin-seo) engaged in an incestuous relationship. He had told Joo-hwan, and rumours spread that resulted in Soo-ah’s suicide.
In addition to the past 15 years of intolerable punishment, Lee has contrived an extra penitence in a twist I saw coming from, oh, about 40 minutes earlier: he had used hypnotism to make Dae-Su and Mido to fall in love because, yes, Mido is Dae-Su’s daughter. And so, rather than ripping out Lee’s windpipe, as would be permissible, Dae-Su is reduced to begging him not to reveal the truth to Mido, and he cuts out his own tongue as a totem of his apology for destroying Lee and his sister’s lives. Lee commits suicide, and Dae-Sun undergoes hypnotherapy to forget the truth, allowing him and Mido to walk off into the sunset.
I doubt the Oldboy cult is really about much more than the visceral thrill of teenagers (of all ages) the world over cooing at the consumption of squirming tentacles and hammer-claw dentistry. Oldboy is undoubtedly strong filmmaking, in a kind of tricky, live-action cartoon fashion, down to the already famous and influential corridor fight, staged in a single shot that must have tested the mettle of its actors to the limits. But it lacks that cool, Kurosawa-influenced realism that made Mr. Vengeance drag me along to an equally nihilistic end, nor the fairly well-judged stylisation of Lady Vengeance, which helped me swallow a rather over-large horse pill of a conceit. Nor is the filmmaking actually radical enough in style and concept to assault the audience’s perceptions of the politics of power, gender, and society, as in, for instance, Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill (1967).
Links that might have been fashioned between Lee’s position as a corporate captain and Dae-su’s status as a self-deluding victim of a TV-fed consumer culture just aren’t there. It’s possible that in Korean society, where many citizens have been kidnapped and held for decades across the border, this is a more vivid anxiety than anywhere else. But there’s no political context: this is pure rat-in-a-maze taunting. Lee’s a gothic supervillain with incest on his mind, hiding in his penthouse, just like Mason Verger, the alternate villain of Hannibal (2001). Rather than build up to anything chilling, or cathartic, or even trashily entertaining, it’s all an adolescent monument to asking what more the audience is willing to put up with. It contains dark humour, and yet totally lacks the playfulness and meta-narrative irony that made the often equally dark Kill Bill bearable, nor does it have Tarantino’s sense of characterisation.
That it doesn’t know when to quit is the real problem, pushing to an unbearable finale in which Dae-su grovels, sings his old school song, and generally tries everything up to and including taking the scissors to his tongue to elicit an iota of relenting from the truly monstrous Lee Woo-jin, a sequence that completely used up any sympathy I had for Park’s films. It’s supposed to be crucial that Dae-su is willing to do anything to prevent his daughter know she’s in love with her father. But the cumulative effect is so viciously, unremittingly hateful that it directs my hate neatly at the people responsible for the movie. “A grain of sand or a stone, they both sink in a river” goes the maxim that Lee quotes to Dae-Su. “Don’t diddle your sister in a schoolroom and expect to get away with it forever,” is the apt response, but no one gets around to that. In fact, there’s very little sophistication to the narrative at all. The characters are flat and absurd, their emotions inflated and yet unconvincing; the visual storytelling is sometimes opaque, but only in an irritating way; the hero’s decisions and actions are often startlingly senseless; and, even for a film that knows it’s absurd, the plot is incredibly opportunistic.
Park’s moral propositions are consistently, offensively stupid, from letting a bunch of hysterical parents cut bits off a paedophile murderer in Lady Vengeance to this nonsensical cavalcade of disproportion. Whatever commentary is supposed to be garnered is nullified by the total tone-deafness of nuance and scale. Much like the childish reductions of Old Testament brimstone and audience-taunting anti-climaxes in films like Se7en (1995), the endless Saw series, and Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005), where justice is cheated either through its insufficient or misdirected application, Park’s philosophical level never rises above the schoolyard, bullying his viewers into bending in reaction to his provocations and dulling their brains into stupefied nonresponse.