“Seeking revenge is the best cure for someone who’s been hurt”, says the captor of Oh Dae-su, a man who has been held for 15 years in a grimy hotel room, and this is a story of mutual revenge served both hot and cold.
There’ve both been hurt, probably irreparably, and what looks like a chain of events set in motion with a kidnapping from a phone box a decade and a half ago actually began its pitiless, unrelenting process considerably earlier.
There is something cliched about the “we will always be linked together, you and I, even though we are enemies” style of story; it’s been done plenty of times. But rarely with such a heady mix of eye-popping fighting, deadpan humour, graphic torture and grungy cinematography.
It’s not for the squeamish though, or anyone with a dental phobia.
When we first meet Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) he’s drunk, at a police station, and trying to piss in a waste paper bin, after missing his four year old daughter’s birthday party. He’s rescued by his friend, who then calls Dae-su’s wife from a phone box, only to turn around to find Dae-su has vanished.
And vanished Dae-su remains, for 15 long years, during which time he is framed for his wife’s murder, and his daughter is adopted overseas.
Those 15 years are spent in a hotel room; the kind of hotel that’s grimy, old fashioned and uncomfortable. And he never has any inkling why he is there or who is in charge.
During his enforced stay Dae-su channels his rage into teaching himself martial arts, and tries to dig his way out, an incredibly laborious process that takes literally years. He also tattoos his hand yearly with a sharpened chopstick to indicate the passing of time, and – worst of all – watches reports on TV of his wife’s murder and his own framing for the crime.
After 15 years he’s left outside in a suitcase and emerges dishevelled and disoriented. He can’t even call up his friends or family as they think he killed his wife.
Despite the grim set-up Oldboy is very funny in a deadpan way. Faced with a gang of young thugs, Dae-su muses: “Can ten years of imaginary training be put to use?” Whereupon he launches himself at the gang, gives them a good kicking then calmly states “Apparently, it can”.
His first visit to a restaurant sees him downing a wriggling live octopus. The young chef there, Mi-do (King Hye-jung), is partly fascinated by him and partly horrified. She takes him home where he proceeds to try to rape her though she fights him off easily. (“I brought you here and turned you down. I can see why you’re angry” she says which, along with her urging him that when they do have sex he isn’t to stop even if she resists, sounds like the very worst type of male gaze rape-culture victim-blaming, though actually it makes complete sense later on. Also, after that sentence I’ve run out of hyphens.)
Dae-su may be physically free but he isn’t free of his captor Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae). Revenge is on his agenda, but Woo-jin too is determined to drive their mutual story, of which Dae-su is not even aware, to its conclusion. Dae-su is given five days to work out who he was imprisoned for so long, or Mi-do will die.
But the biggest shocks are yet to come, along with the most hard-to-watch self-torture scene.
There’s a relentlessness to Oldboy, a one-destination ride that you can’t get off. And throughout, the man who took Dae-su captive all those years ago seems several steps ahead, an arch manipulator directing events, Dae-su’s existence still managed and engineered by him.
In many ways this is also about freedom: whether we really have it, and whether our decisions are directed or borne out of real choices.
The performances are mostly excellent though Yoo Ji-tae seems a little young for his role as Woo-jin. He’s supposed to be a similar age to Dae-su (though I accept that 15 years locked away, and losing his family, might have prematurely aged his captive). Choi Min-sik perfectly captures that sense of disconnect with the world on his release, a world which has continued happily without him. Kang Hye-jung is fabulous as Mi-do, a woman who is both a protagonist and a victim.
By the way if you haven’t seen the film and you start telling people you want to, make sure you don’t refer to it as Oldboy, but as Oldboy-the-original-of-course. It’s a sort of bat signal among cinephiles.
Watch the Oldboy trailer: