By Travis Mullis
It’s been 20 years since Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy hit theaters, where it shocked and delighted viewers with its unsparing brutality and tragic story of one man’s quest to seek vengeance for his years of captivity and the destruction of his family. It went on to win the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival and garner praise from filmmakers and critics such as Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, Roger Ebert and Stephanie Zacharek. Oldboy changed people’s ideas about revenge thrillers, while also putting Korea cinema front and center as a cultural force. Now the film is back in cinemas, remastered and restored, and ready to shock and thrill viewers all over again.
The story opens with the disappearance of the film’s hero, Oh Dae-su, who is imprisoned for 15 years in a mysterious room where all he can do is watch television and eat potstickers shoved through a hole in the locked steel door. One day, after being heavily sedated and hypnotized, Oh Dae-su is set free, and it becomes his mission to find and kill whoever kept him imprisoned all those years. The plot packs more into two hours than most television shows do in several seasons, but I won’t spoil it because you can see for yourself when Oldboy comes to the Independent Picture House Wednesday, Aug. 16.
What makes Oldboy a classic is its unswerving commitment to the revenge-thriller genre, best described by Quentin Tarantino in his book Cinema Speculations as “revenge-o-matics.” The sole purpose of these films is to depict a person’s single-minded, even bloody-minded, pursuit of vengeance for past wrongs. Every action that Oh Dae-su takes, whether it’s his stomach-churning antics in a restaurant or a hammer-fisted brawl down a long corridor, is a manifestation of his inner turmoil and his need to achieve catharsis for years of pain and suffering. That catharsis is what filmmaker Sam Peckinpah once said was the whole point of an action film, for the protagonist and the audience.
Twenty years have passed, but Oldboy still feels as contemporary as ever. That timelessness had me thinking about Roger Ebert’s review, which discussed the puritanical standards of an American studio system that would have never funded a film depicting violence and other topics so frankly. He was right then, and he is mostly right now. It isn’t that we don’t have violence in American media, we have plenty of it, but its depiction is either over-the-top, gross-out horror fare or the bloodless, almost consequence-free violence of comic-book films in which characters can die and be brought back to life to keep a franchise churning forward. Park Chan-wook makes it clear that violence has consequences and forces his audience to see it in all of its brutal, relentless and terrible finality.
Oldboy might not be for everyone, but it deserves to be seen, especially on the big screen. It isn’t streaming anywhere. Come on down to the Independent Picture House to see a film that helped define a genre and a country’s cinema, and even changed the way people eat octopus. You’ll see what I mean.