Director: Park Chan-wook
Written: Lim Chun-hyeong, Hwang Jo-yun, Park Chan-wook
Country: South Korea
“The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexander Dumas is an epic revenge story in Western fiction. “Oldboy” is an epic revenge story from the East, which takes the topic to the whole new level. One of the soundtrack songs from “Oldboy,” titled “The Count of Monte Cristo,” confirms the connection between the two works. “Oldboy” is the second installment of “The Vengeance Trilogy” directed by Park Chan-wook (preceded by “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”, followed by “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance”). “Oldboy” is also the most successful of the three, highly acclaimed by both domestic and international audiences. It won the coveted Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, and was highly praised by Quentin Tarantino himself. It is certainly no wonder, when this film is vengeance in its purest form – bloody, ultra violent and promising no salvation.
“And now…farewell to kindness, humanity and gratitude. I have substituted myself for Providence in rewarding the good; may the God of vengeance now yield me His place to punish the wicked.”
― Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo
When we see Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) for the first time, he is drunk in a police station, making a fool of himself. Painting an even darker picture, we find out that this is his daughter’s birthday. His friend bails him out, and then events turn unexpectedly. Dae-su disappears into thin air while his friend is making a phone call on a payphone. He wakes up in a shabby hotel room, with no way to escape it. His world now consists of a TV and fried dumplings that are served to him through a small window on the room’s iron door. The worst mental torment for Dae-su is not knowing why he was imprisoned, nor for how long. He rages, and even attempts suicide, but his captors use sleeping gas each time and save him. They even change his clothing and cut his nails during this “sleeping time”. Only when Dae-su sees on the news that his wife was murdered and he was a suspect, does he find a purpose for his life – revenge. He starts training and contemplating an escape. After 15 years, he is suddenly released. His captor, Woo-jin Lee (Yoo Ji-tae), gives him a mission – to find out why he imprisoned Dae-su. While searching for answers, Dae-su meets master chef, Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung), who takes pity on Dae-su and helps him. They start an intimate relationship in the midst of all the events.
The plot twists, which I will not reveal, are ingenious. As Roger Ebert wrote:
They come not as shabby plot devices, but as one turn after another of the screws of mental and physical anguish and poetic justice”. At any point you think you have everything figured out, the movie strikes you again and again. This is one movie you should see without any spoilers
While “Oldboy” is truly a masterpiece, vengeance as a theme is not new in Korean cinema. There are many “eye-for-an-eye,” bloody, violent, vengeance movies out there: Kim Jee-woon’s “I Saw the Devil,” Lee Jeong-beom’s “The Man from Nowhere,” Ryoo Seung-wan’s “No Blood, No Tears,” just to mention a few. Jonathan McCalmont, in his blog Ruthless Culture , addresses this obsession of South Koreans with bloody revenge. Each film provides the same moral conclusion – revenge is a dark force that will destroy everyone involved. Even though there is some satisfaction involved, it is usually very short-term, bittersweet, and eventually followed by misery. So why do South Korean directors come back to this topic to provide the same conclusion again? Jonathan McCalmont provides one of possible reasons – the tension between South and North Korea. The Cold War reminiscent “Mutually Assured Destruction” protocol is an absurd political policy, based on fear of “The Other.” Adding to the absurd situation, “The Other” in this case are fellow Koreans. This fear-based political ideology was brilliantly portrayed in the ironic classic by Stanley Kubrick, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” As McCalmont expresses:
South Korean writers and directors are modern, educated people who live in a country whose foreign policy relies upon everyone believing them to have an inhuman capacity for vindictiveness, tribalism and brutality. This is a heavy burden to bear and it requires some processing. (Source: Ruthless Culture)
In another essay, “The Korean Quest for Revenge”, Joyojeet Pal provides a few more possible reasons for such a thirst for blood: the Japanese colonization period, the military dictatorship period with General Park Chung-hee that suppressed the rights of individuals, or American military presence. While there could be many theoretical reasons, Joyojeet Pal circles back and says that:
Theorizing about trends in cinema is frequently loaded with precisely this risk – it is impossible, and pointless to look for causality.
This I do agree with. While there can be many historical and cultural circumstances that affect the film narrative of a particular nation, it would be rather ignorant to pinpoint one as definite cause. This is especially true considering we may have a skewed perspective on this, as it is mostly the bloody revenge movies that get international audience attention. There were just as many romantic comedies and monster movies that were very popular in local theaters at the same time.
From a religious-moral standpoint, vengeance is a somewhat passé holdover from times of tribalism, blood-for-blood, and eye-for-an-eye doctrines. Buddhism and Christianity are major religions in South Korea. Christianity preaches “turning the other cheek,” believing that those that harm you will be punished by God eventually. In Buddhist beliefs, it will be the cosmic law of karma that will affect the harm doers, and they are punishing themselves by harming others. However, when things actually happen in life, it is difficult to hold such lofty morals, and very easy to give in to dark impulses. Revenge is a dark pleasure; and as J. McCalmont describes it, a “guilty pleasure” to watch:
Pleasure they are reticent to admit given their status as a modern and enlightened democratic nation. (Source: Ruthless Culture)
This is not unique to South Koreans, but could be applied to all humans. We can sympathize with the Count of Monte Cristo and Oh Dae-su, and understand their thirst for vengeance as they were mistreated so badly. However, vengeance is not justice, and both cases prove so. In “Oldboy” we see that Dae-su’s imprisonment is part of another revenge story that shocks with its trivial nature. I would not then say that the film approves vengeance in any way, and it actually shows that this force will only lead to chaos and destruction.
The rather interesting and counter-intuitive part was the development of Oh Dae-su as a personality throughout the film. In beginning, we see him as a self-defeating pathetic drunk. Only after he is imprisoned and learns of his wife’s murder does he gain a definite purpose and take action. He starts training and has a plan for escape. At this point, it almost reminds me of “V for Vendetta” – when you are stripped off everything that you possess in life, you gain freedom and reevaluate what is important. Thus, his focus on revenge keeps him strong, and he manages to accomplish a lot. The same goes for Woo-jin. He manages to accumulate immense wealth that would be the dream of many people, but for the sole purpose of vengeance. In both cases, the purpose does not bring any happiness to either, and again, it leads to self-destruction.
One big difference between “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “Oldboy,” a difference that reveals the different ages that the stories were created in, is the commoditization of revenge. In “Oldboy” you can actually buy the service from a private prison to lock someone up in a room for any amount of time you require. The guards are indifferent and soulless. They provide the prisoners with an almost average middle class lifestyle – enough food to survive, TV for entertainment, their clothes are changed, hair and nails are cut. This set up could also be viewed as a mockery of isolated modern lifestyle – food and TV, what else would you need?
“Oldboy” is a violent and gory movie, certainly not for everyone to watch. However, its violence is not just for the sake of violence – it has a purpose and an idea behind it that it fills out and brings to life. I will finish with words from Roger Ebert:
In its sexuality and violence, this is the kind of movie that can no longer easily be made in the United States; the standards of a puritanical minority, imposed on broadcasting and threatened even for cable, make studios unwilling to produce films that might face uncertain distribution. But content does not make a movie good or bad — it is merely what it is about. ‘Oldboy’ is a powerful film not because of what it depicts, but because of the depths of the human heart which it strips bare.