SPOILER ALERT: The ending is alluded to.
South Korean director sensation Park Chan-wook has made a series of films known for their dark use of violence and even darker themes. Three of his most popular films are known as the Vengeance Trilogy, the middle film being Oldboy. It certainly has the penchant for gritty, stylized violence and dark characters who seek vengeance, but it wouldn’t be a good Park Chan-Wook film if he wasn’t playing on conventions.
Therefore, much like his vampire film from last year, Thirst, he’s playing on tropes and expectations of the revenge film. The protagonist is not some grizzled warrior seeking the revenge of his dead family, but an average, fat bumbling worker who is kidnapped by a strange group of men and imprisoned for 15 years. Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) has no reason why he’s imprisoned, and even more baffled by the odd experiments being done on him. He uses his imprisonment to train and prepare to exact his vengeance.
Therefore, a good half of the film he and the audience are left in the dark as to the identity of Oh’s captor and even longer than that to figure out what would motivate a man to go to the lengths he has to imprison an average underachiever.
This means that a lot of the film is spent with Oh as he’s trying to figure stuff out. Perhaps the most lethargic section of the film is his imprisonment, which has the opportunity to be the most interesting, but is bogged down in trite narration and too much exposition. It does a good job of taking Oh to the place he needs to be to seek vengeance on an emotional and physical level, but lacks the material to sustain its runtime.
Once out of prison, the film kicks up the narrative to the level it needs to be. The action sequences are well done and have a weight of realism that makes them far more effective than the over-edited, hyperkinetic Hollywood action romps. But it’s the plot, the gradual feeding of information, that makes the film hook in the audience and create an engrossing picture as one is aligned with Oh in his search for the truth.
Where this all gets complicated and messed up is when the revelation comes, when the truth is unveiled and the realization sets in. It’s telling that one of the least depraved act in the film is when a character yanks out someone else’s teeth with the prongs of a hammer. The film struggles with trying to make sense of an act so revolting and disgusting that it goes beyond any physical torture that the film displays.
Throughout the film, Oh tries to cope with the evil that has happened to him through a saying he repeats: “laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone.” Yet this saying cannot ultimately answer his problems and make sense of the truth. It’s insufficient, incapable of providing any comfort. Instead comes his simple plea at the end: “Even though I’m no more than a monster – don’t I, too, have the right to live?”
Whether or not he does is unclear. In his attempt for vengeance, he discovers that his worst aggressor lies within, that vengeance can never justify the world or even the wrongdoings against him, because he himself is the wrongdoer. What Park Chan Wook has crafted is a revealing and powerful proclamation of truths so dark, so gross, so repulsive that this critic would strongly caution anyone interested in seeing this film. It’s one of the best damn films about human depravity, which almost makes it a must watch but it’s also one of the most damming films about human depravity.
© 2010 James Blake Ewing