Park Chan-Wook’s second vengeance-themed film, 2003’s OldBoy has generated a good deal of controversy since its release. Not the least of which was when photos of Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho were released featuring him striking poses that were eerily remiscent of scenes from the movie.
Of course, there was never any evidence that Cho had actually seen OldBoy, but that didn’t stop folks from talking up the connection.
That being said, OldBoy is a difficult and brutal film to watch. The story of a man imprisoned for 15 years, then suddenly released, only to go on the warpath to find those responsible for his captivity, is full of scenes of brutality and violence, among other things. And on top of that, it’s incredibly stylish and fanciful, shot with virtuosic aplombby Park and featuring a searing performance by Choi Min-Sik, one of South Korea’s finest actors.
But to simply dismiss it as an orgy of violence and sadism is to miss the point. OldBoy is far more complex than the mere exploitation flick that its critics sometimes present it as, as it explores and deconstructs themes of revenge, forgiveness, grace, and depravity. Its characters never simple, one-note caricatures, but rather, complex and deeply flawed characters whose failings are taken to almost mythic extremes.
And though there are many scenes that do provide a rush of adrenaline, those same scenes often cause us to question said rush, that challenge our excitement and make us wade through the consequences of violence. Case in point, arguably the movie’s most famous scene, in which Oh Daesu (the film’s “hero”) takes on an entire hallway of thugs with nothing more than a hammer.
Technically, it’s a brilliant scene. It’s all done in one take, with the camera moving back and forth along the hallway, following Oh Daesu and the gang as they duke it out. But the fight never approaches the hyperkinetic, overly stylized bloodletting that you might expect — this is not a kung fu movie.
Rather, as the fight progresses, Park refuses to cut away from the violence and its effects. And so we see the combatants grow tired from their exertion and their injuries. Their attacks become sloppy and desperate, and towards the end, it becomes rather darkly comical, as barely-conscious thugs have to resort to throwing scraps of wood (and lame curses) at the barely-standing Oh Daesu.
It’s thrilling to watch, as any good action scene should be. And yet it undercuts viewers’ expectations and forces us to rethink our assumptions and expectations, to question why we got so excited in the first place.
Which is the ultimate goal of OldBoy, I think. By showing us the dreadful, bloody, damaging results of vengeance and hatred, of refusing to show mercy and forgiveness, we’re left with brutality and sadism. Not as something to revel in, as might be the case with a true exploitation film, but rather as something to lament and mourn (much like the trumpet that plays during the hallway fight theme).