Director: Park Chan-wook (South Korea). Year of Release: 2003
A police station, late in the evening. A drunk man is being obnoxious to anyone who comes close, insisting he needs to take a piss. His mate eventually comes to rescue him. As they leave the station, his mate makes him ring his daughter, whose birthday party he’s just missed. The drunkard sheepishly holds up his daughter’s present – a pair of white angel wings. His mate speaks with the drunk’s wife for just a moment. While he’s doing this, the drunk disappears into the night air.
A green metal door, which looks like it leads to a prison cell. As a guard opens a cat flap at the bottom of the door to push in some food, we see the drunk from the night before. He flails around until the guard pushes the cat flap shut. Looking at the other side of the door, we see, not a prison cell, but a mediocre hotel room, complete with substandard furniture and a small television. Someone has captured Dae-su Oh and sent him to heck.
Dae-su Oh has no idea who has imprisoned him or why. On the television he learns that his wife had been killed and his DNA was found at the scene of the crime. His daughter has disappeared to Sweden. Occasionally, music plays and gas is pumped into the room which renders him unconscious. Every year, he uses a chopstick to tattoo another line on his forearm. He teaches himself rudimentary martial arts and tries to dig a Shawshank-type tunnel.
Time passes, as depicted in a montage of important cultural items like the wedding of Lady Di and Prince Charles (the great headline Noddy marries Big Ears noticeably absent), the fall of the Berlin wall, and South Korea playing some football games. In the blink of an eye, it is 15 years later. Then, just as suddenly as he is captured, Dae-su Oh is released.
Once more, he has no idea what the people who are controlling his life are doing and why. Nevertheless, he swears that he will track down his captors and exact revenge. He goes to a restaurant, eats a live octopus, and approaches a young woman, Mi-do, saying that he’s sure that he must know her. Turns out that he remembers her from the telly, where she is Korea’s Chef of the Year. For no explicable reason, Mi-do starts to fall in love the much older man.
When Oldboy came out, Roger Ebert was particularly intrigued by Mi-do’s attraction for Dae-su Oh, asking “Why would Mido, young, pretty and talented, take this wretched man into her life? Perhaps because he is so manifestly helpless. Perhaps because she believes his story, and even the reason why he cannot reclaim his real name or identity. Perhaps because in 15 years he has been transformed into a man she senses is strong and good, when he was once weak and despicable ”.
Ebert may have been a revered film critic, but he forgot a much simpler hypothesis. Perhaps Mido took the wretched Dae-su Oh because she’s a fictional character in an artistic genre that wilfully assumes that any attractive woman will immediately fall for a man who is much older and uglier than her, just as long as he is higher up on the cast list. This is, after all, a film where female characters say “It hurts but I will endure it for you” without any sense of irony.
Before this afternoon’s screening, it was introduced by someone from the cinema who warned us that it had been made in 2003, and contained depictions of women that would not be acceptable today. Although this statement shows a remarkable lack of awareness of how little has really changed in less than 2 decades, it does at least make clear that this is a man’s man film which spends much more time setting up fights for Big Men then writing believable dialogue for women.
Oldboy was widely promoted by Quentin Tarantino and is all style and very little substance, but I’ve already just said that. Having said that, there is an awful lot of style – it looks so magnificent that you’re generally prepared to live with the plot making little sense and depending on barely credible twists. For example, serious plot developments depend on hypnotism, which is about as close as you can get to “and then I woke up and it was all a dream” on the scale of lazy plotting.
The film also depends on us being revulsed by the idea of incest. In my first year of a Philosophy degree, I did a course called Moral Problems, where just about every week, the lecturer asked “what’s wrong with incest?” He had a point. At a time when contraception is readily available, what is so repugnant about sleeping with a blood relative? (it should go without saying that my lecturer was sanguine about consensual incest, not rape, which is bad whoever you do it to).
A serious number of reactions to Oldboy have been unduly extreme. People have been appalled or excited by the extreme violence, by the incest plotline, and by the sheer wing and a prayer, “if we show enough flash-bang moments, maybe no-one will notice that we have little to say” audacity. I found it difficult to respond viscerally either way. While Oldboy is clearly not morally depraved or irredeemable, neither is it all that. It’s perfectly ok, but not that special.
Looking at this summary, it feels a little flat about a film for which I’m supposed to feel strongly one way oe another. Well, give me a film that either seriously inspires or disgusts me, and I’ll try better next time.