When we first see Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) he is being held at a local police station for what we can easily assume is for drunken misconduct, he is then bailed out by his friend (Ji Dae Han), but not 5 minutes after being released he disappears. For reasons unknown to him Oh Dae-su is locked into a room where he is kept for 15 years, once released he vows to get revenge on whoever locked him up. But is it revenge or answers that he wants? That is a question asked multiple times throughout the film, when those "answers" are revealed his outlook on life is twisted to unimaginable extremes. Once the credits start running we will have seen the darkest depths of human nature.
Oldboy is the second film in Park Chan-wook's Vengeance Trilogy, preceded by the messy disorganized Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and followed by the powerful, yet more reserved, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005). With Oldboy Park Chan-wook is at his peak in every aspect of filmmaking; his style makes a messy, very realistic, hallway fight scene become like something straight out of a video game. A simple story that sucks you in and has you hoping for the feel-good results when the it only intends on becoming more complicated. A hero who continuously causes pain, a villain who transcends psychopathic evil, but somehow it is impossible to not feel sorry for him, making it hard not to want to shed a tear for him. What you see is in no way what you get, Chan-wook leaves us holding our breath for that final satisfaction only to leave us wondering, and in his words "debating."
On his search for answers that will lead to his long awaited revenge Oh Dae-su falls for Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong), a pretty sushi bar waitress who is immediately fascinated by this mysterious weird talking man. While in imprisonment Oh Dae-su was framed for his wife's murder and his daughter supposedly was taken in by a foster family, it seems that his family quickly slips his mind. Though he has no idea just how close to home he will be hit. The "villain" Lee Woo-jin (Yu Ji-tae) was actually one of Oh Dae-su's schoolmates, and just like before his imprisonment Dae-su was a hot-headed loud-mouth. Through a series of flashbacks we find out that Dae-su had seen Lee Woo-jin and his lover (Yun Jin-seo), who she is becomes a very vital part to unforgettable climax, having a very sexual moment which he unintentionally started a rumor about. The rumor ended up spiraling out of control causing Lee Woo-jin's lover to kill herself.
In many ways this film is more about Lee Woo-jin's revenge than Oh Dae-su's. We see everything from Oh Dae-su's point-of-view, which means that we are just as ignorant to the twisted brutalities that are really going on. Here is a revenge tale that loves to deceive, weaving us in and out of a world that is complicated not because of what is happening with the plot, but because of what the simple plot has done to the characters. As much as it is thrilling this film is just as tragic, it gives us and its characters that false sense of hope that makes it all the more powerful.
Choi Min-sik and Yu Ji-tae are wonderful creating their two tortured characters whose morals test the limits of sanity. Even with the extreme situations I understood and even sympathized with both characters actions. Oh Dae-su's life was destroyed by being help captive with the only way of him reaching any peace being getting revenge on the man who imprisoned. Lee Woo-jin's life was destroyed when his forbidden lover killed herself because of a rumor Oh Dae-su started with the only way of him getting any peace being to seek revenge on the man who caused his pain. But like in most revenge stories when that ultimate satisfaction is achieved the memories still stick around making it impossible for peace ever to be lasting.
Here is a film that is known for having some very violent moments, especially during its shocking climax, but when looking at the film as a whole it never lets itself get out of control. Mr. Vengeance suffered from relying on violence to leave any sort of lasting impact, Oldboy suffers from no such thing. The real horrors are going on within the always simmering realities. I even noticed that Park Chan-wook seemed to turn the camera away when violence got a little too extreme, even he understood that his storytelling alone was going to deliver the shocks.
What will leave the most lasting impact is without-a-doubt the climax where the answers are given and the shocking truths a finally revealed. Oh Dae-su realizes the mistake he made when he was younger and comes to confront his captor for a final meeting. Park Chan-wook sets his camera on a mirror so we can see both men's faces, putting the chains-in-motion for a twisted finale to be studied, talked about, and cherished. A simple look for answers becomes a heart wrenching look at two men whose pain causes them to forget their morals pushing them beyond the limits of sanity. Watching this elaborate vision of revenge is being given a neutral, condemning, but still sympathetic view of the nature of vengeance. Showing its harsh realities while being considerate enough to show us what causes people to seek it to get some sort of satisfaction within all their pain. Park Chan-wook's vision does become quite pessimistic, letting only dim rays of hope seep through. Something to remember is that in each film in his Vengeance Trilogy is a study on the nature of revenge and why it is such a worldly fascination.
Based off a Japanese manga of the same name, Oldboy's script was created by many different people, but it is very easy to see that this is Park Chan-wooks vision and it is him that deserves the credit for creating something that is twisted brilliance in every sense of the term. This is a very quotable film; here are the quotes that deserve to be remembered:
Oh Dae-su: Even though I'm no better than a monster don't I have the right to live?
Oh Dae-sue: Laugh and the world laughs with you, weep and you weep alone.
Lee Woo-jin: Remember this: "Be it a rock or a grain of sand, in water they sink the same."
Those are not revolutionary quotes, but what they do is work to a beautiful perfection with the film they are in. Putting them into perspective with the entire film each defines the entire film in their own original way. I will not go into specifics as to why they work so well, I will let you figure that out yourself.
To watch Oldboy is to experience something that only comes around once or twice every year; a film perfectly in sync with its stylistic wants and emotional intentions. A strong supporting cast keeps things flowing for Choi Min-sik and Yu Ji-tae to rip our hearts out leaving us gasping for air. Using a hypnotic ending to create some hope, but cutting off before we can be too sure. This will be a definitive moment in Park Chan-wook's career, it will be a very special occasion if he is able to reach a level like this again.