Home Video of the Week: ‘Oldboy’: Laugh and the World Laughs with You

It didn’t take long after its release for Oldboy (2003) to become a cult classic. It quite possibly outshines its origin as a manga series, with its shocking scenes featuring the main character, Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik) eating a live squid and fighting a mob of henchmen with a hammer in one long, unbroken take. Scenes such as this one stand out in a film that’s filled with dark and disturbing images. The complex story of revenge goes into many surprising and surreal places, but at the same time doesn’t  spare on dark humor.

Recent news of an American remake have led to much skepticism—if not outright horror—from the many outspoken fans of the original Korean film. Rumors of Steven Speilberg signing on to direct, along with Will Smith in the starring role, didn’t go over well with Internet critics. However, the final choices of Spike Lee as director and stars Josh Brolin and Sharlto Copley (from District 9 (2009)) as the main character and his nemesis respectively seem to be going over well so far. Still, some argue that Park Chan-Wook’s film simply can’t be remade. The argument can certainly be made, although recent remakes of foreign films such as Let Me In (2010) and The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo (2011) prove that not all Americanizations are cop outs.

Spike Lee undoubtedly has a tough job ahead of him because so many images and sequences in the original film are etched forever in the minds of viewers. Supposedly the squid scene will be preserved, but it’s also difficult to imagine Oldboy taking place in any other place than Korea.

The story begins in 1988, with the protagonist, Oh Dae-Su, being held in a police station after a night of drinking. We learn very little about him at first, and the characterization that follows doesn’t focus very much on his life before this point. He’s a businessman, he has a wife and a little daughter, and he has a drinking problem.

Shortly after being picked up by a friend, Oh Dae-Su is snatched from the street and held captive in a veritable prison not much bigger than a hotel room. His captor is nameless, his location and the motive behind his imprisonment are unknown to him, and his captivity ends up lasting fifteen years. He’s also forced to watch on the news his wife get murdered, and he receives the blame. During this time he is both drugged and hypnotized, presumably so he won’t go completely insane. Upon his abrupt release on a rooftop, he meets a man trying to jump off and kill himself. This suicidal man imparts the cryptic wisdom: “Even though I’m no better than a beast, don’t I deserve to live?”

Dae-Su is almost immediately contacted by his tormentor after being released and given the imperative to find out both who he is and why he imprisoned him. However, he only has five days. Dae-su’s prison journal includes a list of all the people he’s hurt, harmed, or otherwise offended. Needless to say, the journal is very long, but even then the secret of his tormentor is not readily apparent. The surprises that unfold with each new piece of information reveal a tortuous and vile origin, as well as a similarly macabre fate for everyone involved. As with many stories of vengeance, the path that unfolds is messy and spares no one, no matter how seemingly insignificant their involvement may seem. As Dae-su’s captor states, “Whether rock or grain of sand, in water they both sink alike.”

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One Comment

  1. I wrote to Spike Lee's production company with the suggestion that he set the adaptation of the film to span the years 1953 to 1968 – the American Dae-su would be a Korean war veteran kidnapped just after his return from overseas, and he would be released into an America transformed by anti-war protests, the hippie movement, and, most importantly, the sexual revolution. This fifteen year span would correspond well to the historical experience of South Korea between 1988 and 2003, during which military rule was replaced by democracy, the economy underwent a devastating financial collapse, and a full-fledged consumer society arose in its aftermath. In the original, Dae-su re-enters a society that has become wealthier, more politically free, and more morally and socially permissive than the society which he inhabited.

    I never received a response to my email, so I am thinking that the adaptation will be set in the present. Oldboy gains much of its power from being a kind of Rip Van Winkle story, which is obviously more noticeable for students of Korean history. One of Philip Roth's characters in American Pastoral declares that the US changed far more between during the 1960s than it did at any other time in history, and it would have been interesting seeing viewing these changes through the lens afforded by the transgressive themes of the film.

    I have written an article on Oldboy which will be appearing in the inaugural issue of the Journal of East Asian Film Studies. If you would like to take a look, send me an email at pypaik@gmail.com.

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