No country does psychological thrillers like South Korea. With zero sense of remorse, zilch spot of rationality, zot tinge of humanity…
With absolutely nothing, Oldboy begins (See trailer here).
Oh Dae-su (played by Choi Min-sik), a family man in his thirties, wakes up to solitary confinement in a motel-like prison, oblivious to how and why he had ended up in there.
For endless cold and bitter nights, he sees only the corny geometric wallpapers adorned with a ghastly portrait of a waning old man which forewarns too much of his looming predicament than it should; he hears only the doomed melody that impends the gas which raids his consciousness; he smells only this vapour, specifically Valium, made by the Russians to sedate their Chechen adversaries but now used on him; he tastes only the saltiness in the dumplings with a glut of spring onions that numbs his tongue with their cyclic flavour; he feels only the ghastly loneliness and hysterias that are slowly eating into his heart, invading what’s left of his sane mind. Most of all, he asks only the simplest question, which was never answered...
“If they had told me it was going to be 15 years, would it have been easier to endure?”
...For the past 15 years, Oh Dae-su lived a living hell without knowing why he was put in there. What unforgivable mistake had he committed to incur this unexplained imprisonment of more than a decade? Was it someone he had offended?
“You can't find the right answers if you ask the wrong questions.”
After a span of eternity, or so it seems for Oh Dae-su, he was suddenly released on a rooftop, with no explanation. Nil. Naught. Nada.
In fact there was no sign of his previous captivity except for a tattoo of 15 stitches that he has sewed onto his hand as a painful reminder of the years stolen from him for a reason he had yet to discover.
No doubt, he became obsessive about finding his captors. Recalling the dumplings he ate daily while he was confined, he tracked down the restaurant and eventually found the “prison” which was in fact a building filled with room cubicles where the rich would pay to have others incarcerated.
There was no way these minions would know the mastermind, but they did provide him with one piece of valuable information before he fought his way out of the building with a hammer in one hand and a knife stuck in his back.
Oh Dae-su was held captive because he was apparently “talking too much.”
“Laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry and you cry alone.”
While he was hot on the heels of revenge, Mi-do (played by Kang Hye-jung), a young sushi chef miraculously fell in love with him during their first happenstance. It was miraculous because Mi-do is an attractive young woman in her twenties, who had no reason to fall for a disheveled ahjussi who is positively unhinged.
Maybe it was because of the giant live moving octopus (actor Choi Min-sik completed the scene without any computer-generated imagery) that he swallowed in front of her while her jaw dropped, because that is definitely not the kind of courage you can find in any lucid being. But as it happens, Mi-do was the only one who believed Dae-su’s encounter, and very soon became his only source of comfort in this heedless seek for vengeance.
One would expect the antagonist to only be revealed at the end of the film, typically in the finale. But no, as explained from the beginning, logic and conventions are overrated.
No longer plunging into the darkness of unresolved conundrum, Oh Dae-su could finally put a face to his enemy, and so could we.
“I thought I'd lived a simple life. But I've sinned too much.”
Lee Woo-jin (played by Yoo Ji-tae) finally revealed himself as Dae-su's kidnapper, a billionaire and undoubtedly a sadist. With every taunt and goad, he maneuvered Oh Dae-su like a seasoned puppeteer, but of course, he had 15 long years to contrive a way to deal with him.
Woo-jin gave Dae-su an ultimatum of five days to discover his “evil deed” for himself or else Mi-do would not live past the fifth night. Innately (inaptly) curious, Dae-su started to seek his connection with Woo-jin and found their association in a place long forgone.
“Be it a rock or a grain of sand, in water they sink as the same.”
Sangnok High School is the place where it had all started – an unintentional remark sparking off a fatal rumour. Insignificant, yet lethal in its every sense.
“Even though I'm no better than a beast, don't I have the right to live?”
If there were any films to be named as the epitome of vengeance, it would be Oldboy. In an assortment of themes such as existentialism, the implication of memory, torture, violence and most controversially, incest, Oldboy has imbedded in its ending, the most twisted of minds and psychological games that surpass our usual tolerance for brutality.
Having won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival with exceptionally high praise from the President of the Jury, Quentin Tarantino, the film had an impact throughout Asia and even Hollywood (Spike Lee will be releasing a remake this year) with its radical storyline.
Choi Min-sik is indisputably unrivalled in his portrayal of a man being driven to the verge of a nervous breakdown. But his counterpart Yoo Ji-tae, did an equivalently remarkable job portraying a hopeless man who lived only to destroy a life in the most perverse and undignified manner, because that is what revenge is all about – to make someone suffer much more than you did.
The depth of a human heart is so full of sadism that even our human mind cannot fathom - there is no delicateness to the message conveyed.