*. I’ll start off with a confession. The first time I saw Oldboy I didn’t like it much. In fact, I disliked it. I think this was mainly due to my not understanding what was going on, especially at the end. I’m not referring to Dae-su Oh’s enigmatic or ambiguous facial expression, but a more general sense that I must have missed something.
*. After getting the plot straight I still found it preposterous. Not only has the villain infinite resources and a long memory, he has a scheme for revenge so ridiculously elaborate and contrived it is hard to credit. Other questions also popped up. Do facilities like the prison hotel exist? Can we credit Dae-su’s mastery of the martial arts through fifteen years of shadow boxing and watching infomercials? And what of the use of hypnosis as a rather strained plot device? They might as well have made it a love potion, borrowed from some medieval fairy tale.
*. But after living with Oldboy for several years, and giving it some second chances, I’ve come around. I still think it’s a fantasy, but I’m more sympathetic toward where it’s coming from.
*. Like most fantasies, it’s meant to point a simple moral. As I see it, the moral here, and I think it’s a profound and important one, is that things that we personally experience as trivial and inconsequential may in fact have enormous impact on the lives of others. It takes Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) so long to figure out what he did to Woo-jin Lee precisely because it didn’t mean anything to him at the time. As Woo-jin tells him at the end, he didn’t have to be hypnotized to forget. “You just forgot because it wasn’t important to you.” For Dae-su, it was only Tuesday.
*. If you keep that moral in mind then I think a lot of the rest of the film’s highly questionable morality can be got around, leaving it to provide a garish backdrop that matches the horrific wallpaper. Speaking of which, is Korea the land of ugly wallpaper and even uglier bathrooms? I’m not talking about the prison hotel here but also Mi-do’s apartment, which is even worse in both regards. This was clearly a deliberate style choice (Oldboy is a very designed film) but I wonder why they wanted the sets to look so bad. Perhaps just to add to the sense of a hellish, dystopic world.
*. Returning to my main point, when I refer to the film’s “highly questionable morality” what I’m talking about are things like (1) how Dae-su is punished far beyond the nature of his crime (though this fits with the disproportionality between cause and effect that is the movie’s theme); (2) how Woo-jin basically gets away with his entire scheme, despite being a wicked man; and (3) how Dae-su’s friend is, if anything, even more culpable than he is, since he is the one who apparently starts the ball of gossip rolling. But Woo-jin only kills him in a momentary pique of anger.
*. To an audience raised on Hollywood fare, which is nothing if not conventional in its morality, I think all of this must come across as very strange. At least that’s how it struck me. But shouldn’t movies from other countries be different? I think they should. The puzzling question is why so many people in Hollywood wanted to remake Oldboy. Couldn’t they see that there was something here that was never going to translate? And before Spike Lee finally signed on Spielberg was going to take it on. I can’t think of two directors less naturally inclined to handle such material.
*. I won’t say anything more about the remake here aside from noting that it was ill-advised and turned out badly. In addition to flubbing the basic moral message, it had none of the artistry of what is a remarkably well made film.
*. What impresses me the most is the way the look and design of the film is used to evoke the variety of psychological and emotional states we travel through, and how this is done in such a way as to be both obvious and subtle. On the DVD commentary director Chan-wook Park and cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung spent almost all their time talking about technical matters, and mention how they used a lot of different techniques but that they didn’t want them to show. They wanted to hide the art of the film as much as possible. How did they manage to do this, in such an almost flamboyantly artistic film?
*. I think they did it by ramping up the extremity of the psychological and emotional states I mentioned, to the point where the audience is more interested in what is happening to the characters than in how they are being presented.
*. I’ll give one example, which is the brilliant bit of filmmaking that has Dae-su remembering what he saw at his private school. The first part of this is wonderful, using the various staircases with characters running in and out of frame to mirror the mental work that Dae-su is doing in trying to get back to the moment in the classroom. The Piranesi-like setting makes us feel like we’re inside the architecture of his brain, and while it’s very flashy, because we’re caught up in the same mental process, hot on the trail of the answer the puzzle the movie has set us right from the beginning, it’s not a flashiness that seems obtrusive.
*. This is followed by the scene where Dae-su sees the tryst in the classroom, which involves a complete change in style. Now we’re stuck with a long take shot from a single fixed camera position. It’s a real change of gear, but again you don’t notice the style so much (at least on a first viewing) because we’re stuck in the same position as Dae-su, as a voyeur to something that’s revealing on a couple of different levels. We’re just as obsessed as he is.
*. Now this is what I call filmmaking: when you can change up styles so smoothly, be so inventive, and yet perfectly match the direction to the exigencies of plot and character. And I think it’s something I didn’t appreciate enough the first time I saw the movie.
*. There are a lot of other great moments along the way. There’s some of the best use of a split screen I’ve ever seen, for one thing. Then there’s some great set design (I love the stained carpets in the prison hotel). But I think what I liked the most was the physicality of how Min-sik Choi plays Dae-su. The way he feels and tastes the rain outside his prison. The way he rubs himself over the suicidal man on the roof and tries to smell him. And perhaps best of all I like how tired he gets in the long fight scene. He’s not a superhero. He goes down a few times, gets hurt, and has to rest for a bit to get his breath back. Josh Brolin doesn’t do any of these things in the remake. He is a superman.
*. But even while coming around to Oldboy I have to say that I still find it a little too weird to fully get on board with. A really great movie shouldn’t have this crazy a plot. That is, however, the same problem I have with Vertigo. It’s just a matter of taste.