Onscreen at least, I have no problem with violence. I am not one of those people who believe that getting a kick out of cinematic carnage is indicative of a deranged mind, vicariously living out some dark desires, nor do I put much stock in the idea that representations of violence somehow turn normal, level-headed people into remorseless killers. In real life, acts of violence are made even more tragic because they’re ultimately as pointless and unproductive as they are brutal and heartless, but on film, I’m even comfortable with violence for its own sake, free of social commentary or weighty moral dilemmas. I won’t be cueing up torture porn like Cannibal Holocaust again anytime soon, but while I adore the uneasy moral ambiguity conjured by Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange, I’m also happy to watch Danny Trejo cleave a few skulls, more or less for the fuck of it, in Machete. At this point, it should come as no surprise that I’m a fan of Oldboy (2003), Korean director Park Chan-wook’s unflinching and controversial dissection of revenge and the toll it takes on a human being. Still, though I feel no need to justify my enjoyment of the film’s stylized brutality, examining how other people respond to this provocative film is interesting in its own right.
Based on a Japanese manga series which originally ran from 1996 to 1998 and was written and illustrated by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi respectively, Park’s film is actually the second in an unofficial trilogy, which all ended up tumbling into American theatres within months of each other in 2005. Though not narratively linked, the films, beginning with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (released in Korea in 2002) and capped off by 2005’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, are all more or less obsessed by the idea of revenge and the psychological and physical degradation wrought by obsessing over it. Since the films were essentially forced to compete with themselves, it’s no surprise that Oldboy is the one that sticks out in the American consciousness. It’s by far the most cohesive, the most kinetic and the most stylish, and were it not, it still boasts a premise that puts the others too shame. At the start of the film, Oh Dae-su is a deeply flawed, but mostly harmless businessman; he’s a loudmouth who drinks too much and is kind of an absentee father, but none of that explains why someone would pluck him off the street, keep him imprisoned in a single room for 15 years, and then just as abruptly, set him free.
During the time spent isolated in his cell, a sort of shabby hotel room complete with color TV for company, Oh becomes consumed by the mystery of finding out who sentenced him to this hell and why. He catalogues everyone he’s ever wronged, but still has no idea who would hate him that much. To stave of insanity, Oh focuses on training his body, preparing to face his still anonymous enemy. Then one day: sunlight, and like a bullet from a gun, Oh cuts a swath of bloody havoc across Seoul in his search for answers. There’s plenty of abuse inflicted on the human form over the course of two hours, including one brilliant scene in which a hammer-wielding Oh fights his way through a crowded hallway, all caught in one take, but it ended up being PETA who was most outraged by the film, thanks to an unforgettable moment when the newly released Oh devours a live octopus, who, understandably, seems none too happy about its fate (and it ain’t special effects either). That moment of shock filmmaking became the most enduringly controversial thing about the film, at least as far as the general public is concerned, but more interesting is the debate the film set off among critics and cinephiles.
“There’s no denying that Mr. Park is some kind of virtuoso, but so what?” asked the New York Times Manohla Dargis, summing up the film’s detractors, who begrudgingly admitted it’s formal and technical achievements before loudly pointing out that it’s a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, that for a film that asked a lot of big questions about human psychology, there was, as the Chicago Reader’s J.R. Jones put it, “a lot less here than meets the eye.” These reactions aren’t exactly surprising, though you can get the sense that they’re asking a bit much from a movie that purports to be nothing more than an action packed thriller, that if the film wasn’t so violent, it wouldn’t need to justify itself so much. On the other side of the fence, people found the film as profound as it was flashy. None other than Roger Ebert wrote, “Oldboy is a powerful film not because of what it depicts, but because of the depths of the human heart which it strips bare…we are so accustomed to "thrillers" that exist only as machines for creating diversion that it's a shock to find a movie in which the action, however violent, makes a statement and has a purpose.”
Overall the film seemed to inspire absolute disdain or the highest of praise, with very little gray area in between. Thing is, the gray area is usually where the truth lies. Oldboy has a lot of clashing filmmaking styles and motivations, which somehow all hang together in spite of the cognitive dissonance they cause. It’s a pulpy action movie and a psychological thriller, as well postmodern comment on both of those genres, and as a result you can never quite pin it down. The film doesn’t plunge the depths of the human soul, but it isn’t totally brainless either and while it revels in the corporeal thrill of violence, it doesn’t particularly glorify it (the aforementioned brawl in the hallway, while aesthetically appealing, is really a rather breathless, tooth-and-nail affair), so some viewers seem perplexed as to what’s worth thinking about and what’s just plain popcorn fun.
And yes, even with all the tooth extractions and incest and hammerings, it is a fun movie, which is why, though its detractors were many and vocal, it has proved more enduring than the sadistic grindhouse trash they dismissed it as. It won the Grand Prize at Cannes in 2004 (though it was a bit of a shoo-in Quentin Tarantino was head of the jury that year) as well as a slew of other awards before going on to become a box office and rental success all over the world. It’s proved so popular that an American remake is in the works for 2013, surprisingly but promisingly starring Josh Brolin with Spike Lee in the director’s chair. And if you think the remake will be a sanitized, neutered version, leery of pushing the envelope or offending anyone as Hollywood films so often are, according to the Los Angeles Times, “Lee said he imagines his movie going even darker.” I, for one, am looking forward to it.