Asia take 3 – Korean, genre defining ‘revenge-thriller’

Oldboy – Chan-wook Park (2003)

In leaving the western/mid Asian areas, this blog will tell a whole different story. Miles from the oppression of Turkish women in ‘Mustang’ and the familial/cultural tensions in ‘A Separation’, Oldboy emphasises the vast variety of cultures present in the Asian continent. After parting with its communist northern half in 1948, South Korea has become one of the continent’s most affluent countries, with large, high-tech cities such as it’s capital (and Oldboy’s location) Seoul. From what I can gather the wealth in their film industry has something to do with a law that limits the amount of foreign films that can be shown in the country, meaning the majority of sales go to South Korean made ones. Forgive be for using Wiki as a source but I wanted to get a quick background on their cinema and came across this gem: “The 1999 film Shiri about a North Korean spy preparing a coup in Seoul was the first in Korean history to sell more than 2 million tickets in Seoul alone. The movie’s popularity, coupled with the screen quote, helped Shiri to surpass Hollywood box office hits such as Titanic, The Matrix and Star Wars in South Korean theatres.” Hopefully that helps put things into perspective, if not then at least it was a nice random fact, the more you know eh? Anyway, I’ll try to summarise without spoiling anything…

Without context, Oldboy begins with a scene from maybe a quarter way into the film, protagonist Oh Dae-Su holding a man from falling off the edge of a building by his tie. Then we return to the beginning of the story, drunken Oh Dae-Su being detained in a police station on his daughters birthday, only to be bailed out by a friend. As his friend speaks to the daughter over a telephone box phone, Oh Dae-Su disappears, and we later learn that off screen, he was kidnapped. Oh Dae-Su is locking in a hotel-like prison cell for 15 years, over which we see his mental deterioration as he obsesses over his past, wondering what he could have done to make someone seek such a brutal revenge. We see a woman leaning over Oh Dae-Su and calmly instructing him to see an open field when she rings her bell, from this scene we can assume Oh Dae-Su has been hypnotised but we do not know why. Suddenly and without explanation, he is released from captivity and departs on his quest to discover who his captor was, why they captured him and finally, to seek vengeance upon them. Though after his release I had absolutely no concept of time, the film’s tagline clarified (“15 years of imprisonment, five days of vengeance”) the rest of the film takes place over 5 days. During these 5 days his captor taunts him, willing him to discover the reasons behind his actions and mocking him when he fails to do so until the film comes to its incredibly dramatic grand finale (although is there a part of the film that isn’t incredibly dramatic?) and eventually somewhat ambiguous ending.

Even though I’m not much of a thriller person (I spend most of my time watching cute dog videos), and I’ve not seen a whole lot of revenge besides a few obvious ones (namely ones like Kill Bill/other Tarantino films, Memento, Leon: The Professional etc.), I can understand the many critics I see claiming Oldboy to be a defining film of the revenge genre. Since I’m a) a little on the squeamish side and b) was terribly hungover at the time of viewing, there were a lot of moments where I had to look away (eg. the scene with the teeth and the squid scene) BUT somehow it didn’t remind me of what usually feels like repetitive, unnecessary violence in other films with similar themes. You see Oh Dae-Su unravelling, for 15 years not knowing the reason behind his imprisonment, which would undoubtedly drive a person to extreme measures. The film captures the human obsession with the truth, as though Oh Dae-Su is freed physically, he can not return to life as he knew it until he is freed entirely, by learning the true meaning of his capture, and the character himself acknowledging that when he does find out will he be the same Oh Dae-Su?

In this very complex video it is explained, (somewhat beyond my comprehension but I’ll include the link because the bits I do understand are real interesting), the very intricate ways in which Oldboy is an adaptation of the Greek Tragedy, specifically the story of Oedipus, and reflecting on the story you can’t deny that the film is just… incredibly tragic. Besides Oedipus, the film is also derived from a Japanese manga series of the same name, showing its East Asian influences. For these reasons I find it baffling that in 2013 there was an American remake, when a film is as culturally phenomenal, why can’ Hollywood just leave damn well alone? Having said that, I haven’t seen the film but do find it hard to imagine it doing the original justice. Anyway, I strongly suggest you see this film (the 2003 Chan-wook Park version obviously) because it does total justice to the thriller genre… there literally isn’t a boring moment in it, even if there are various gross… oddly charming ones.

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