A classic cult film reminiscent of Greek tragedies
Old Boy (2003) is a high-octane revenge drama blended in a neo-noir action thriller genre, by auteur Park Chan-wook from South Korea. The film is the second instalment of Park’s The Vengeance Trilogy, preceded by Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and followed by Lady Vengeance (2005).
The film is not a typical entertainer – it’s not light viewing and definitely not for the squeamish or the soft-hearted as it ventures into the realm of a taboo subject and is liberally peppered with violence and gore.
What this film is, is a deeply profound and thought-provoking piece of cinema. It’s a classic and has gained cult status over the years. It was lauded by critics worldwide and received numerous awards including the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival and was praised by the jury president, noted filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino.
Oh Dae-su, played brilliantly by veteran actor, Choi Min-sik is a regular middle-class person. Fond of his drinks, he gets a tad inebriate and finds himself at the local police station. Never mind, if it’s his little daughter’s birthday. It’s quite late in the night when his friend, No Joo-hwan (Ji Dae-han) bails him out.
They stop by a phone booth to wish Dae-su’s girl but when Joo-hwan turns, there’s no sign of the man. It’s as if Oh Dae-su has simply disappeared from the face of the earth,
Dae-su finds himself incarcerated in a private prison cell, more akin to a seedy hotel room with nothing but television to give him company for the next 15 years and no explanation. Similarly, he is one day suddenly freed and he has 5 days to find the answer to all his burning questions or else…
The film delves into the theme of vengeance but does not glorify it. It’s about a man, taken away from his family and placed in a hellish situation for no seeming fault of his. The initial anger and affront, gradually give way to philosophical assessment and a certain level of tolerance. Dae-su asks himself if he could have endured his captivity better if he had known the reason.
He starts writing, a sort of autobiography of his deeds, a confessional, achieving a certain level of self-analysis, wrought by years of solitary existence. He writes about all the people he has hurt or wronged and realizes that while he thought he had lived an average life, he has sinned quite a lot.
But 15 years of solitary confinement is a long time for any person to lose track of human empathy. A series of sequences show that our man has gone unhinged. Oh Dae-su has sort of, come back from the dead. Social propriety, patience and compassion have been overshadowed by a volcano of rage, fuelled by the overwhelming desire for vengeance. There’s a pearl of folk wisdom – beware of the man who’s lost his sense of shame and fear of death.
The one interesting aspect of this film is its unpredictability and its ability to send a deeper shock wave with every segment. And each segment leads to a newer set of questions.
And interestingly, his release from his private prison does not mean that he has been liberated. Oh Dae-su realizes that he’s just been put in a bigger prison and is constantly under surveillance. He’s more like a puppet on a string, manipulated into doing the bidding of his depraved and deranged captor. In fact, his release from his private cell puts him in an even deeper level of hell.
There are shades of Greek tragedies in Old Boy, and the name Oh Dae-su is reminiscent of the famous classical Greek character of Oedipus Rex (watch Old Boy to find the connection). Keeping in line with the Greek theme, the character of Lee Woo-jin (portrayed by the enigmatic Yoo Ji-tae), the captor is probably reminiscent of the Greek God, Apollo, handsome, strong, and radiant.
He looks much younger and stronger than Oh Dae-su even though are the same age. Woo-jin is rich and powerful, lives in the heavens (a high-rise establishment) and is all-knowing. In other words, he has Oh Dae-su under constant surveillance. Lee Woo-jin is the classic antagonist with a soul darker than hell.
Due to an incident in school for which he is solely responsible but unable to bear the guilt, he finds a convenient scapegoat in Oh Dae-su. Oh Dae-su, on the other hand, is (more or less) blameless and destroyed for no fault of his own. But he is human and his desire for revenge makes it his fatal flaw just like the heroes of Greek tragedies.
The film sees his metamorphosis from a loudmouth, lovable, harmless rascal to a silent, vicious fighter, with a single-point agenda to not only seek the answers to his questions but also get revenge for his sufferings.
Later, when Oh Dae-su does find all the answers to his queries, is very much in love with Mi-do and happily living with her, she gives him sage counsel — to stop his revenge on Woo-jin and start a new life somewhere far away. Had he listened to her, he would not have found himself totally stripped of all dignity and humanity in the end.
The film explores the human psyche and man’s natural thirst for revenge when wronged. Both Lee Woo-jin and Oh Dae-su are driven by vengeance as both believe they are the victim. In actual fact, revenge is one of the main reasons for violence throughout human history.
And Old Boy shows how this unbridled thirst can utterly destroy oneself. Whether one gets their revenge or not is not the issue, the degradation is so complete, they can never regain their humanity. The only antidote to the poison of revenge is forgiveness.
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Verdict - 8.5/10