Movies · Reviews

Foreign Objects: Old Boy (South Korea)

This week’s Foreign Objects takes a look at one of the best revenge films ever made, one of the few films guaranteed to be on any list ranking revenge movies… heck, I can’t even imagine someone putting together a Best Revenge Film list without this one ranking fairly high. Yeah. That’d be crazy.
By  · Published on May 28th, 2009

Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to look for films worth visiting. So renew your passport and get your shots, because this week we’re heading to…

South Korea!

The powers that be here at FSR recently posted a list with the extremely misleading title of The 10 Best Revenge Movies of All Time.  In actuality it’s at best a list of ten movies… period.  If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of perusing this terribly misguided post please do so when you have the chance.  (And I’m not knocking the list’s author who’s also written several very good reviews here at FSR, just strongly disagreeing with the list itself.)  It’s simultaneously entertaining and sad, but it’s hardly a list of ten revenge movies (let alone the ten best).  Now the joy (and point) of lists like this is found in the discussions, disagreements, and arguments that follow, and here the list succeeds brilliantly.  I could easily join the fray and point out that at least three of the films have absolutely nothing to do with revenge, that some of the others are borderline, and that there are at least thirteen movies more deserving of inclusion than the ones ultimately chosen.  But we’ll save that for the comments section or maybe for a revised list next year.  For now I’d like to take a look at just one of the many films criminally absent from the list, a film I would have probably placed in one of the top three spots, a film that conveniently enough happens to be foreign thus allowing for it’s presence here in Foreign Objects…

Dae-su Oh sits on a bench in a police station, drunk and disorderly, alternating between rants and curses aimed towards his captors (and the camera) and apologies and pleas to the same.  There’s a small sadness to the scene as we watch a man make a complete and utter fool of himself, but at the same time we’re entertained by his antics and carefree attitude.  This intro serves as a gentle and humorous microcosm of the hellish incarceration to come.  Dae-su is released, he makes a call home to wish his daughter Yeun-hee a happy birthday, then steps out of the phone booth and disappears.  He wakes up in a garishly patterned but still muted room with a bed, TV, bathroom, and a locked door.  Someone feeds him fried dumplings through a slot in the door but never speaks.  A soft melody occasionally plays which Dae-so learns is the precursor to sleeping gas.  This becomes his routine to which he adds watching TV, faux-fight exercising against the wall, suicide attempts, the occasional slip into insect-laden delusion, and writing in a journal the names of all the people he’s wronged or fought.  This “list of evil deeds” is a long one as he searches his memory for all the people who might hold a grudge against him.

One year in he watches a news report about his wife’s murder and sees his own face on-screen as the prime suspect. Fourteen years later he awakens in a suitcase on a rooftop.  He’s given money, a cell phone, and just a few days to find his captor.  Free from physical captivity, he’s now trapped by a singular desire for revenge.

Further plot details are best experienced first-hand but know that Old Boy is a kick in the ass to the revenge genre and an entirely original beast at the same time.  The familiar concept of ‘an eye for an eye’ is twisted as both the convention and the audience’s preconceived notions of the genre are contorted into something fresh, darkly humorous, haunting, and devastating.  Dae-su’s quest for vengeance carries him through the city’s underbelly as well as his own forgotten memories, but while his journey is the familiar and expected response to his captivity the film deftly avoids providing the linear path both he and the audience are expecting.  The question of who becomes a question of why before answers are disgorged wrapped in innocuous memories and painful truths.  How important is vengeance?  And how high of a price is he willing to pay for it?

Director Chan-wook Park will continue making films for many years to come but I expect none of them will have the power and charisma of Old Boy.  The center of Chan-wook’s loose trilogy of revenge, the film is a perfect blend of the dark and unforgiving Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance and the blackly comic and redemptive Lady Vengeance.  Images of raw beauty sit beside scenes of brutal violence… blossoming love beside unbearable anguish… hope beside defeat.  Chan-wook’s camera moves with seamless intention (comparisons to David Fincher are apt) through scenes both frantic and calm, and he’s never afraid to mix styles for dramatic effect.  A clenched hammer pauses in the air as a dotted line works it’s way from the claw down towards the targeted skull.  A story about loneliness comes to life with a giant, melancholy ant riding the subway.  Chan-wook speaks with images and his story is one of rage, sadness, and innocence.

The tightly wound threads of the story and Chan-wook’s vivid eye are only part of the film’s success.  The performances are uniformly excellent with the obvious and most impressive given by Min-sik Choi as Dae-su.  His emotional and physical exhaustion is visible onscreen from the giddy introduction to the draining finale.  Most of the film’s many memorable scenes focus on him, but two stand out for his endurance and dedication.  One finds him sitting down in a restaurant shortly after his release.  Fifteen years spent dying on the inside his culinary desire is simply to eat something “alive.”  The sushi chef who soon becomes his companion offers him a still writhing and wet octopus… which Min-sik proceeds to grab with his fist and tear into with his teeth as the suction-cupped tentacles latch onto his hand and face.  The scene can be difficult to watch but the action and expression on his face is unavoidably one of power and necessity.  Another scene finds Dae-su at the wrong end of a hallway filled with twenty or so thugs.  He rushes them swinging and dodging his way through the tangle of fists and feet in one long, continuous camera take.  He pauses at one point, visibly spent with a knife sticking out of his back, and then watches with a wry smile as the elevator opens and several more ruffians enter the hallway…

The film’s ability to find something to smile about in the midst of such chaos and devastation is amazing.  An attempted sexual assault becomes a lesson in manners, a crappy pop song cues a scene of innocence and desire, and a girl playing with angel wings is bittersweet relief for the tragedy unfolding around her.  Can a film be both unbelievably ugly and achingly beautiful?  (Hint… yes.)  The visuals and action onscreen are accompanied by a stirring score by Seung-hyun Choi and Ji-soo Lee.  A driving beat keeps pace with the viewer’s pounding heart, and softer, more curious tones drift in the air during Dae-su’s brief moments of relaxation.  Particular scenes incorporate a lush waltz-like piece as well to great and powerful effect.

I envy anyone watching Old Boy for the first time as the brilliant and complex story unfolds and peels away like razor-sharp layers of a brutalized onion, and yet I continue to fall victim to the film’s violent and lyrical thrall each time I re-watch it (six times and counting).  The revelations and plot twists do allow for one or two missteps in logic, but the overall effect of the film drowns them out.  The mystery at the heart of the story is as twisted and fucked-up as they come, but in the end it’s neither the film’s center nor soul. Old Boy works as a purely thrilling piece of entertainment, but it also seeks to warn of consequence and accountability.  When to speak and when to listen, when to act and when not to, the inherent value of responsibility… where most revenge-themed films simply follow a character from victim to avenger, Old Boy shows how empty and misleading those labels really are.  If you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favor and rent it now before your mind is tainted by the inevitable Hollywood remake (currently attached to Steven Spielberg and Will Smith).  Check out the trailer below.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.