The Korean director Park Chan-wook graduated in philosophy from Sogang University and initially wanted to become an art critic. One day, when he saw Hitchcock's Vertigo, it was as if a switch turned inside his mind. I myself had a similar experience when years ago I saw a performance by William Forsythe and the Ballett Frankfurt. Park Chan-wook realized that if he didn't try to become a movie director he would regret it at his deathbed. Having first worked as a film critic and then as an assistant director, he directed his first feature film in 1992.
Park Chan-wook's latest film, Oldboy, is the second instalment in a trilogy about vengeance. You can tell that Park Chan-wook knows his literature. In Oldboy you can see traces of Kafka, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dostojevski, the work of Japanese filmmaker Miike Takashi, Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo, but only if you want to. Oldboy is a magnificent film that easily fits into the above list. And if you thought Kill Bill was a great film about revenge, then watch Oldboy.
In Oldboy Oh Dae-su, a young man with a wife, a one-year-old daughter and an office job, is abducted on the street the moment after his release from police custody, where he was retained for disorderly behavior. When he wakes up he finds himself in a room with a bed, a toilet, a shower, a television and a desk. He has no idea who is doing this to him or why. Every night Valium gas is spread into his room and during his sleep his room is cleaned and his hair cut. He learns on television that his wife has been murdered and that he himself is the prime suspect. Determined to revenge himself on whoever has imprisoned him, he vows to stay alive.
Fifteen years pass and then one day he awakes on top of an apartment block in the neighbourhood where he used to live. In a sushi bar he meets a young girl named Mido, whom he recognizes from a television show. She takes to him and helps him in his search for vengeance.
When Oh Dae-su finds the man who has kidnapped him, the mysterious Woo-jin Lee, a point where other films would end, he is confronted with a dilemma: to instantly revenge himself or to find out why he was held captive for 15 years. His opponent proposes a game: if within five days Oh Dae-su discovers the truth he will commit suicide, if not he will kill Mido. What follows is a highly inventive plot. It is a variation on a classical theme, but I found the way Park Chan-wook has developed it both innovative and convincing.
With its beautiful visual style Oldboy makes for a distinctly cinematic experience. Park Chan-wook pulls out nearly every trick, but he does so with style and a subtle sense of humour. When he tries to remember his past Oh Dae-su chases his younger self in an Escher-like labyrinth and Park Chan-wook's version of the square Mia Wallace/Uma Thurman draws on the screen in Pulp Fiction is both functional and funny. Incidentally, Oldboy won the Grand Jury prize at the 2004 Filmfestival in Cannes and jury president Quentin Tarantino named it as his favourite film of the festival.
There are some pretty violent scenes in Oldboy, whose intensity originates in their proximity to lived experience. One scene in particular is hard to "stomach". In this scene Oh Dae-su eats a live octopus. Of course, the octopus doesn't like being eaten. This is hardcore sushi. As a matter of fact living baby octopus is a rare Korean delicacy and supposedly every year someone suffocates while eating it.
Inevitably, in almost every story there is some sort of a deus ex machina. The author cannot explain everything. Oldboy rests on the wealth of Woo-jin Lee, the man who had Oh Dae-su kidnapped. How he acquired it is not relevant for the development of the plot, it is something we, the viewers, have to take for granted, but it is also the oil that keeps the machine running.
You can watch Oldboy as a very intelligent highly engaging thriller, but it also asks some profound philosophical questions. This to me is what raises it above the level of just another good film. The questions Oldboy asks linger longer in the mind than the answers Park Chan-wook could have given in a philosophical essay. Philosophy can map out every aspect of a problem, but it cannot make it felt. Art can. That is the power of art.