There's an old French proverb that tells us "Revenge is a dish best served cold." Can you just leave it out in the open, though? No, of course not, it will rot and small animals will make off with it if that were the case. Such urges are bottled up, kept deep inside, for the right moment to release their dark and depraved impulses upon the world. Cautionary tales like Moby Dick teach us to be careful how far our thirst for vengeance takes us, while those like The Count of Monte Christo show us the magnificent lengths to which the truly driven can go to exact their revenge. Oldboy does both.
Oh Dea-Su is a middle management worker and a bit of a drunkard on his way home to his wife and daughter after a run-in with the local cops. He is plucked from the street in a moment his friend is looking in another direction. He is thrown into a small room, barely a studio apartment, with a locked and heavily fortified door featuring only a small slot for meals. He has a TV, desk, bathroom facilities and writing implements. This is his home for 15 years. Then, one day, he is mysteriously released, given new clothes and a few clues, and given 5 days to sort out who locked him up and why. He's been gassed, dragged around, poked, prodded and who knows what else. Nobody's spoken to him in 15 years. As you can imagine, he is... a little upset.
Director Park Chan-Wook lists Alfred Hitchcock as one of his key influences. The construction of this film shows that in nearly every frame. Composition and angles are so precise and pitch-perfect for a given scene, and no shot goes on for a moment longer than it needs to. It reminded me a bit of Hitchcock's North by Northwest, replacing the espionage and mistaken identity themes with a need for vengeance so all-consuming it verges on complete madness. Much like last month's Hannibal Lecter, we are shown creatures that, after so many years of torment and loss, can only barely be considered human. They look like us, move like us, even talk like us at times... but there is something very wrong, here.
Totally still a human being.
Underscoring the disturbing things that lurk in human skin that we see in Oldboy, we also see quite a bit of visceral harm done to human bodies. Like the view of the human soul, the sight of the violence is unflinching. However, this is not to say that it's gratuitous. On the contrary, in the vein of both Hitchcock and Hannibal Lecter, or at least Silence of the Lambs, the violence drives home the point of the story instead of existing for its own sake. The lulls between the violence also serve a purpose. When we see Oh Dea-Su staring straight ahead, saying nothing, we know the sort of beast he's become is lurking just beneath the surface, all too eager to lash out at anything in his path.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing of all about the central character in Oldboy is that he begins as a thoroughly ordinary man. You've probably seen or worked with or even befriended people like him in the course of your life. Fifteen years in captivity makes him nearly unrecognizable. This ordinary man is twisted and pressed and pushed into becoming something different, something at once far more dangerous and far more diminished. He can perpetuate all sorts of chaos yet holds onto his humanity by the slimmest of threads. And it could be any one of us.
Do I make a hammer time joke? Or say that the director nailed it? Decisions, decisions...
Fascinating, disturbing, at times funny and others soberingly heart-wrenching, Oldboy is a masterpiece of a suspense film. It's psychological aspects dig quite deep, its thriller beats never fail to deliver and its cast never feels unnatural or over-the-top in their performances. It's dark storytelling at its most basic and very finest all at once. While at times its violence and events feel like something from another world, it's so grounded in its setting and characters that not only could this happen to any normal human being, it could be happening right now. There's an immediacy to it, an intimacy, that gets right into your head and sits there daring you to take a closer look at what it's saying. Don't let the violence, the foreign language or the occasionally manic oddness of Oldboy put you off. If you're at all interested in film-making, psychological suspense or a stripped-down unflinching examination of some very dark corners of the human condition, this is the film you've been waiting for.
Josh Loomis can't always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it's unclear if this week's film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain... IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.
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Next Week: GANGSTER NO. 1