It’s been fun participating in the Blind Spot Series blogathon over at The Matinee during 2014. Exploring Asian and foreign films as well as modern and not so modern classics has been eye-opening. As a Korean cult classic Oldboy blindsided me with its visual spectacle…
How can a filmmaker review Oldboy by Park Chan-Wook and think ‘I need to remake this movie?’ I don’t know. Typically they want to improve upon the visuals, or re-imagine the story in a more vivacious way. After seeing the film for myself I say: How foolish!
Every detail of Oldboy was exploited to create a series of visually spectacular shots. They awakened the senses and engaged the mind. From an ant that eats its way out of the prisoner’s skin, to a montage of television history to show the passage of time to the raw consumption of a live octopus (and many more I won’t ruin). These story details accentuated a feeling of alien-ness for Dae-su’s plight. Instead of relating to his circumstances you sit on tenderhooks as the bizarre events unfold around him. You too are motivated with a desire to know what it is this man did to deserve such a fate.
That isn’t to say these shots were purely for visual spectacle either. When Dae-su is released (with a very cool trunk scene on the roof) he meets a man committing suicide. He stops him to tell the man his story, but refuses to wait around to hear the man’s own reasons for suicide. As he’s leaving the building the man hits a car behind Dae-su and he doesn’t even bother to look behind him. This illustrates his lack of thought for anyone but himself. He’s totally focused on how he feels, what he lost, his revenge. It is this mindset that lead Dae-su to help Lee Woo‑jin get his final revenge for Dae-su’s crime.
At the heart of Oldboy is balance. Writing balance and production balance. The plot is a classic twist ending and not really very special on its own. The characters are typical archetypes that need actors who understand their specific circumstances to make anything special of them. It’s the contrast of character to plot, in other words, a flaccid, drunk, useless middle-aged man being held a prisoner for 15 years without knowingly committing a crime to warrant it that is truly wowing. The ridiculousness of both ideas being put together balance them out. Alone neither element stands out as special, together they are mysterious and intriguing. Fleshed out with excellent casting and visual flair and you see why I question any filmmaker’s desire to try to improve on this movie.
While we are as eager as Dae-su for him to learn why, when we meet Lee Woo‑jin our desire becomes rabid. He’s a mysterious figure, one with money, a heart problem and a bodyguard. Every single one of these tiny details leads to more questions. What was the purpose of the heart scans midway through the movie? Did he make that money or come from an upper class family? Why maneuver Dae-su into letting him go when he had a bodyguard? And the twist at the end – why not tell Mido? Would it torture Dae-su more he knowing and keeping from her? Did he think Mido would commit suicide and repeat his hell?
As a writer and wannabe filmmaker I’m intrigued by this story and the way it is presented. This is not for everyone. In fact, it’s not for most people. The entire story rests on shock value. It holds a one two punch, shocking the audience visually then smacking them upside the head with the literary twist.
The graphic sex scenes were filmed in such a way to deliberately make you uncomfortable, both visually and audibly. It really hit home the twist. We wouldn’t have felt the revenge so much if we hadn’t seen how intimate the two had become with our own eyes. The self-mutilation is another example where we needed to feel the one two punch. As if he were accepting his responsibility in Lee Woo‑jin’s sister’s suicide as well as the role he played in stealing Mido’s innocence.
From the opening shots in the police precinct all the way through the closeups of Dae-su embracing Mido in the end there is this building of moral disgust that begs the question did Dae-su deserve what he got? The parting expression on Dae-su’s face says it all to me and I can’t help feeling unsympathetic.