Girl Meets Context: This month is Brutality Month on Girl Meets Freak, where we’ll watch some of the most recent examples of ultraviolence in horror movies. We wrap the month up with Park Chan-wook’s adaptation of the Japanese manga series that became an instant cult classic. A man named Dae-su (I Saw the Devil‘s Choi Min-sik) is imprisoned within a small room for 15 years for unknown reasons by an unknown party. When one day he is suddenly freed from captivity, he goes on a mission of revenge that involves finding the person or persons responsible for his incarceration and figuring out their motives. Teaming up with a sexually submissive sushi chef named Mi-do (Kang Hye-jun), Dae-su seeks out the private prison where he was held and begins to piece together the reasons for his abduction. Infamous for it’s staggering setpieces (especially a long, single-take fight sequence where Dae-su beats up about thirty guys at once) and sick sense of humor, Oldboy has become a favorite of the fanboy/geek culture set. It is also the middle film in director Park Chan-wook’s thematic “Revenge trilogy,” along with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005). Kristine and I figured we’d better discuss the original Oldboy before Spike Lee’s American remake comes out in October. If you haven’t seen Oldboy, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Kristine: You chose to bookend Brutality Month with two South Korean action/horror movies concerned with righteous anger, revenge, and the cost of said revenge on the protagonist, the target, and society (anyone else who served as collateral damage).
Sean: I did. This and I Saw the Devil.
Kristine: Explain yourself, and please compare and contrast the two films and their directors.
Sean: Well, the simple answer to why I chose to open and close the month with South Korean revenge movies is just the fact that for the past 10-to-15 years, South Korea is the world leader in bloody revenge melodramas. There are literally a dozen other South Korean revenge movies I could have chosen, other than these two, that are all pretty much masterpieces of technique and performance.
Kristine: Oh! Interesting. Do any of those other movies star Choi Min-sik? Because obviously both of these did.
Sean: Hilariously, the answer is yes. Many of them also star Choi Min-sik.
Sean: But I thought these two were a good contrast because I wanted you to see Choi Min-sik on both sides of the aisle, as it were, playing both the target of the “hero’s” revenge and the “hero” doing the revenging.
Kristine: He’s pretty top notch, I must say.
Sean: Now, I don’t know if the proliferation of revenge movies coming out of South Korea is because of the North/South bifurcation of the Korean peninsula or what… I don’t know if there’s some sociopolitical argument to make about why this country has gotten so good at making these kinds of movies. But this is their “thing” right now, like how, in the 1990s, Japan was making all those long-wet-haired, croaking ghost pictures.
Sean: But also, you know what television character (whom you adore) is famously obsessed with Oldboy, right?
Kristine: Wait. Let me think. A show currently airing or no?
Sean: No. It is off the air.
Kristine: I am guessing… Omar from The Wire?
Sean: That is the craziest guess. I love the idea of Omar watching this movie. Hint: This character’s favorite band is Death Cab for Cutie.
Kristine: Oh, if you are thinking of that tiny Jewish boy, I do not adore him.
Sean: Yes, it’s Seth Cohen from The O.C. I thought you loved him!?
Kristine: I prefer my guess a million times more. The Seth Cohen kind of boy was my type, once upon a time. But no longer.
Sean: I guess I am dumb. I thought when you watched Season 1 of The O.C. you were like, ‘Seth rulez, Ryan droolz’ and we fought about it. In fact, I am definitely sure that happened and that, for some unknown reason, you are denying it now.
Kristine: Moving on! Back to South Korea and their obsession with stylized revenge action flicks with a heavy dose of vigilantism. And all featuring… disposable ladies!
Sean: Well, both of these movies definitely do. There’s a great movie called Bedeviled that has a woman in the role of the revenger. Also, I don’t know if you know this, but Oldboy is actually the middle film in a thematic trilogy by Park Chan-wook (Note: this is also the director who made Thirst) and the third movie is called Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and also has a woman revenger.
Kristine: I do know about the trilogy. One of the reasons I’d never watched Oldboy before is because when I worked at an independent video store, all my male co-workers were obsessed with that trilogy, and I had to boycott the movie as a statement against their bullying, movie-snob attempts at hegemony. So. And yes, I did know this was the guy who directed Thirst, which has a great female lead in Tae-ju, the wallflower-turned-vampire queen. Mi-do does not compare to Tae-ju, I have to say. But in Oldboy I was struck by the attitudes of the male characters towards the women in the movie, more so than any single female character. None of the women in this movie are given much to do, but they still have these huge central roles in the psyches of the men involved.
Sean: Oldboy (and I Saw the Devil, for that matter) is definitely about how men feel about women, more than being about women themselves.
Sean: Well, can I ask? Between this and I Saw the Devil, which is the better movie? In your opinion?
Kristine: First answer me this: surely Kim Ji-woon, who directed I Saw the Devil, was influenced by Oldboy, right? He was doing his own homage to Oldboy, right? He must have been!
Sean: I don’t know if he’s said that in interviews or not. But going with my own instincts, I don’t think so. Simply because this kind of revenge thriller is such a legitimate genre in South Korea that lots and lots of directors are working in. And also, I think the tones of the two movies are very, very different. Oldboy feels more slapstick and histrionic to me. I Saw the Devil feels more blistering and apocalyptic.
Kristine: Well, that’s what I was thinking about when you asked which one is the better movie. I agree with your description of the differences in tone, for the most part. Like, in both films the protagonist realizes that he has a bug (listening device) planted on him. In Oldboy, Dae-su simply goes to a security vendor, finds it, and removes it. In I Saw the Devil, we have to watch Soo-hyun shit in a bowl and then rifle through feces in order to neutralize the bug.
Sean: That’s pretty much a perfect comparison/contrast to show how the movies approach the same basic subject matter with different frames of mind.
Kristine: Right? Also, the merry gang of fellow serial killers in I Saw the Devil made that film seem like it took place in a more fantastical universe than Oldboy. I thought the whole private, for-profit prison complex in Oldboy was very apocalyptic, don’t you?
Sean: I don’t know if I’d call it “apocalyptic.” I’d call it “dystopian.”
Kristine: Well, right, that’s what I mean. I really don’t know if I can choose which of these two movies is “better.” They’re both fantastic in their own ways, and they’re both troubling/flawed in their own ways. I can say (and this might be because I just watched Oldboy) that if I had to pick one to re-watch, it would be I Saw the Devil. I want to see all the crazy fight scenes again! Do you have a favorite between the two?
Sean: I think I’m ultimately more drawn to I Saw the Devil. Oldboy has a very “for the bros” feeling that isn’t to my faggoty liking.
Kristine: Right! Nor to my lady liking.
Sean: At least in I Saw the Devil we didn’t have to squirm through any vile sex scenes where the woman is literally yelling, “This is agony but I will persist for your pleasure!” Mi-do was a total Manic Pixie (Incest) Dream Girl and it majorly bugged.
Kristine: Ha! Oh my god, I agree! After Dae-su sexually assaults Mi-do while she’s sitting on the toilet and she successfully fights him off, she tells him, “I can see why you’re angry. Next time I’ll go through with it. I might fight you off in the heat of the moment, but no matter what don’t stop.” And then while he’s de-virginizing her she says, “It hurts so much but I will endure. You better not forget this!” She was a huge problem for me. Here is a question. Both bits of dialogue I just quoted made me want to die from disgust and getting the heaves, but the actress’ delivery was so insane and campy that I ended up cracking up. Did you find it funny at all?
Sean: Oh, I definitely think all the sex stuff was played for laughs (hence the reason I called this movie ‘slapsticky’). The only thing that redeems those elements of the movie, for me, is that I think Park Chan-wook wants us to laugh at all the characters, including Dae-su, not just the women (like Rob Zombie). I mean, the movie is really just one long elaborate punchline, right?
Kristine: Agreed. And I was like, OMG and WTF when the movie went deeply into all the incest stuff. I did not see that coming. And I thought it was interesting that we watched this movie and A Serbian Film in the same month, because there are obvious incest parallels between them.
Sean: Yes, though in Oldboy I feel like the incest is eroticized, whereas in A Serbian Film it is presented as horrible. Do you think Oldboy‘s brother/sister tittysucking scene was erotic? Was it sexy? I felt like it was constructed in order to create the maximum number of boners in the audience possible.
Kristine: Yes, obviously Oldboy eroticizes the incest. And furthermore I was thinking about how that erotic encounter between Woo-jin and his sister also called back to the voyeurism stuff we were talking about last month, in all those classic thrillers like Peeping Tom and Psycho. Dae-su as voyeur is the key to that moment and perhaps, to the film overall – that he’s the looking eye (holla, Black Christmas) peering through the crack in the glass and thus sees something he shouldn’t have seen. Whereas Hitchcock in Psycho wants us to all get off on the act of spying and looking at others, and Powell constructs the impulse to look, to spy as something potentially monstrous in Peeping Tom, I feel like Oldboy lands somewhere between the two. Park Chan-wook both wants to get us off (hence the sexy sexiness of the incest scene) but also condemn the act of looking – because all of the evil things that befall Dae-su happen because he saw, he looked, he spied. Because he played the voyeur.
Sean: I agree, but he also talked about what he saw. That’s the sin he is being punished for.
Kristine: So is the idea, you can be the voyeur and get off, but just don’t talk about it?
Sean: Basically! And in A Serbian Film, the impulse to look, to spy (through watching pornography or creating the spectacle of pornography) is condemned, right?
Kristine: Yes and no. The initial act of looking in the movie is little Petar watching his father’s porno movie, which his parents take in stride and think of as a “normal” impulse to look. But it’s only once Vukmir appears on the scene that the act of looking gets twisted and made truly perverse. Just like in Peeping Tom, the mechanisms of cinema are construed as somewhat evil. The villains in both films are filmmakers, and both use their cameras as weapons, as tools of sadism.
Sean: And bringing it back to Oldboy, incest is the destructive Grand Guignol finale of A Serbian Film, the ultimate transgression at the end of the movie’s series of escalating setpieces. Whereas in Oldboy, incest is the genesis of all the violence and evil that follows. But the actual incestuous sex was about pleasure and erotic exploration, not abuse of power like in A Serbian Film.
Kristine: Well, right. Also the “incest” in A Serbian Film comes in the form of rape. In Oldboy it is consensual. Though just barely. Woo-jin is pretty aggressive with his sister in that scene.
Sean: So does that make Dae-su the conservative cultural force that is judging and condemning the incestuous couple and thus destroys them? Is he the true villain of the piece?
Kristine: That is certainly one way to look at it. Did you notice that, in a very similar fashion to the male protagonist in Thirst, Dae-su physically transforms and is essentially reborn throughout the course of the movie? I really love how both Dae-su here and Sang-hyun in Thirst went from fugly schlubs to crazysexycool badasses. I think Park Chan-wook is really into the idea of transformation and rebirth, even when it is forced upon you (by getting turned by a vamp, or being locked up for 15 years).
Sean: I also noticed that theme of transformation in Oldboy. Remember that expressionistic portrait that hangs in Dae-su’s prison chamber? It’s a portrait of a man who is madly grimacing/smiling and it says, ““Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone” on it (which are, by the way, lines from the American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox, collected in her Poems of Passion). And Dae-su tries to impersonate the painting’s wild-eyed grimace/smile while he is being held captive and he looks crazy doing it… But then remember at the end of the movie, he has supposedly had his memories erased by the lady hypnotist (italics for emphasis), and then Mi-do hugs him and the camera zeroes in on his expression over her shoulder, and he is wearing the exact expression from the painting. That’s the image the movie ends on. When I said the whole movie is an elaborate set-up for a single punchline, that’s the image I’m talking about. That face, the one in the painting, is the face he transforms into by the end. There’s some kind of sick idea in there about persistence and smiling in the face of misery and tragedy, though I’m not sure I’m buying it. But I think Park Chan-wook’s thesis statement in this movie is basically like, The only sane reaction to the madness, violence and misery of life is to force a smile on your face and move forward or something, which is like weirdly something Oprah would agree with so its weird that the Seth Cohens/video store bullies of the world would love this movie so much…
Kristine: Interesting! I like that. And remember, the lady hypnotist says something about how he will be split into two Dae-sus, and one of them is the monster and he would “die” after 70 steps (I’m paraphrasing, but you get me), leaving only the Dae-Su with the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind to go about his business. I thought the end scene with his crazy Francis Bacon portrait face showed that, nope, the “monster” is still with him, and can never be killed off.
Sean: Yes. I agree with that 1000% My boyfriend watched Oldboy with me and I basically said to him, “Oh so that expression/callback to the painting means that Dae-su is not freed from knowing the horror of his existence” and he was like, “So the hypnosis didn’t work? He remembers that Mi-do is his daughter?” I think the answer is… It doesn’t matter. He’s still Mr. Monster, whether he remembers the exact details or not.
Kristine: Right. Even if he’s had his memory wiped, part of “him” will always know and always be there. You can’t wish that shit away through the “magic” of hypnosis. So, is it possible to read that his grimace/smile at the end is because Mi-do, the Manic Pixie Incest Dream Girl, doesn’t know the truth, so Dae-su can still bang her even though he knows.
Sean: Yes, I think so. It is purposely ambiguous but ominous.
Kristine: I think so, too. And I am like, VOM. Another parallel to Thirst that jumped out at me was how both movies end on shots of a doomed couple and their inescapable fate. I think that is noteworthy. Also, in each case, the male is the one who is truly deciding the fate for both of them, right? In Thirst, Tae-ju wants to live, Sang-hyun but he forces her to die with him. And in Oldboy, Dae-su is withholding the truth of her paternity from Mi-do. I’ve only seen two of Park Chan-wook’s movies, but so far I have to say that he’s really talented, but has major lady/relationship issues!
Sean: Perhaps… Though Thirst feels like a radical feminist statement when compared with Oldboy. For all the problems/inherent sexism in how Park handles Tae-ju in Thirst, the movie also takes a lot of pleasure in her pleasure. We were asked to identify with her perspective and really see the world from her point of view, like that scene where she is being carried in those gigantic leaps through the night and we are being asked to participate in her dizzying euphoria and excitement at breaking out of her terrible life and into a big new open world. Tae-ju is someone we can identify with. Not so with Mi-do in Oldboy, who is just a prop in the story of Dae-su.
Kristine: Agreed, for sure. But one thing I like most about Park Chan-wook’s films is just the aesthetic universe he creates. Like Pedro Almodóvar, Park is someone with a really strong visual sense who cares a lot about the surfaces captured in the frame. I loved the set design in Oldboy. I really loved the crazy red-wallpapered rooms. In fact, didn’t Thirst have a very strong black/white/red palette also? I also loved Woo-jin’s”I’m a villain in a 1960s James Bond movie” penthouse. Did you like it or notice it?
Sean: No, I did not notice the set design! But I agree that Woo-jin was such the Bond villain, especially with his specially-made remote control self-destruct button that will make his heart explode. So ridiculous. And, of course it goes without saying, his absurdly elaborate revenge plan against Dae-su. I mean, the levels of melodrama and nighttime-soap-plot-contrivances that are necessary for this movie to work really endear it to me. I mean, this movie is as much Melrose Place as it is Death Wish. The fact that it all boils down to the fact that teenage Dae-su GOSSIP-GIRLED about these other kids, and then a girl killed herself, is totally ridiculous “Tonight on a very special episode of Beverly Hills, 90210” insanity. Right? This movie is melodrama maximus to the maximum maximus. I am especially thinking of Dae-su’s over-the-top reaction to learning the truth about Mi-do from Woo-jin, when he has a full scale Dr. Kimberly Shaw-grade meltdown on his hands and knees barking, licking Woo-jin’s boots, freaking out crying and begging… And the climax is when he cuts his tongue off (which is a symbolic castration based on Woo-jin’s earlier condemnation that “Your tongue got my sister pregnant, NOT my dick!” referring to Dae-su’s gossiping). So this nighttime soap opera stuff married to the explicit gore is…. well, it’s something. And Woo-jin as supervillain mastermind was one of those over-the-top melodramatic flourishes that I actually really loved. And I think there is legit homoerotic energy between Woo-jin and Dae-su. His naked ass with the arrow tattoo snaking out of the crack is another of Park’s sick visual jokes. It might as well say, “Insert Cock Here.”
Kristine: I agree, and Woo-jin’s peroxide-haired henchman was so totally James Bond, too. He had a great death scene, by the way. He must have workshopped that in acting class for months! I am not kidding, it was fantastic.
Sean: Ha! The other big homoerotic moment is the bit where Dae-su rubs his hands all over the poodle guy’s face. It is sexual and the most overt instance of clear homoerotica. I think Park Chan-wook wants that moment to read as homoeroticism, not least because think that man is meant to read as gay and swishy, I think that’s the purpose of the little white poodle. And it didn’t simply feel like slapstick, though it did have that comic, heightened tone of the rest of the movie. Also, the man with the poodle connects to your thoughts that the movie is really about loneliness (which we need to get to) – he’s up on the roof in order to commit suicide (I hated the “joke” of the dog bouncing off the roof of the car). But since the first third of Oldboy functions as a flashback that is all being told TO the man with the poodle, I think he is a very significant character.
Kristine: I feel like we need to discuss whether dedicating oneself to revenge is a legitimate life choice or not.
Sean: I mean, in order to entertain that question, I feel like I need to understand what Oldboy is trying to tell us about revenge and… Honestly, I am not sure what the movie’s ultimate statement actually is! Or if it even has one. I mean, are all the melodramatic flourishes meant to signify the absurdity of “the revenge quest”? Or is the way the movie revels in all those flourishes an endorsement? All the Biblical quotes and stuff also muddy the waters for me. Someone in the movie says, “Seeking revenge is the best cure for someone who’s been hurt. Try it.” I can’t remember who says that, but I jotted the quote down. So does the movie believe that or not? I’m not sure.
Kristine: Well, what’s the significance of the movie’s title? Why is the movie named Oldboy? Is that the key to unlocking the movie’s attitude towards revenge?
Sean: Can I just say that I’ve seen this movie at least 3 or 4 other times, and before watching it this time I could not remember why the movie is titled Oldboy. So I paid special attention to that this time around…
Kristine: Well, I got that it’s the slang signifier for alumni of their high school – they were the Evergreen Old Boys. But why is that the movie’s title? What does it tell us about what the movie is trying to say?
Sean: I’m not sure. I mean the school’s name being Evergreen is obviously connected to the film’s interest in the passage of time. At the start of the film, Oh Dae-su tells us his name means something like “just trying to get through the day.” And then there is so much clock/time imagery. The school’s name, Evergreen – always fresh, always vibrant, always in bloom – is contrasted against the dichotomy of old (aged) and boy (youth). But I’m not sure what it all adds up to.
Kristine: I have a quick question: Do you think that secret private prisons like the hotel in Oldboy really exist? Because I do!
Sean: Oh god yes. That prison hotel is my favorite ‘invention’ in the movie.
Kristine: I agree. I also think if you had the money, you would have totally sent me there numerous times over the years. You’d be all, “Hmmm, you’re dating who? Six months in the pen for that decision!”
Sean: Would not. In fact, I could not believe Dae-su had Mi-do imprisoned after he suffered through 15 years of maddening isolation there. That was so disgusting. But that’s also one of those moments where I’m not quite sure what the movie wants us to feel. I think the movie endorses Dae-su’s paternalism. In fact, I’ve noticed one of the primary virtues that geek culture/fanboy cinema celebrates is compulsory paternalism (see Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Joss Whedon’s Avengers film, et al). But I suppose it’s possible that Park Chan-wook intends for us to see Dae-su’s parternalism as grotesque. I mean, that’s what I think, but maybe the movie agrees with me.
Kristine: Except that Mi-do’s reaction to being locked up in the superprison is like, “You had your reasons, Dae-su, no probs.” If Park wanted us to see his paternalism as a problem, wouldn’t the movie let Mi-do express rage at his treatment of her?
Sean: You’re right, of course. Remember the motto of the superprison? “The bastard you hate, but don’t dare kill. The bitch you detest, who deserves a fate worse than death…” Very Hostel.
Kristine: You know, one image that’s really stuck with me is that shot of Mi-do and Dae-su naked and asleep in bed, having passed out from the gas they pump into the room, and Woo-jin fully dressed and wearing a gas mask, lying in bed next to them. Remember how the whole room is this womb-like space, all wallpapered and carpeted in blood red?
Sean: Oh yeah, that shot! Well, this is leading to something I’ve been wanting to discuss, which is just this movie’s literary qualities. To me, I Saw the Devil is pure cinema; Oldboy FEELS like a literary adaptation (which it is). Firstly, the movie itself makes literary allusions (to the Bible, to The Count of Monte Cristo, etc.) But also it just “comments” on a lot of shit, like literature often does – the role of media in the world (I’m thinking of that tv montage in the holding cell where Dae-su sees all the events of the past 15 years fly by) and the nature of time itself (Evergreen as a metaphor, all the clocks and watches, etc.). But the movie is also making some political points. Remember we’re told that gas is “the same Valium gas the Russians used on Chechen terrorists”? And that image you just referenced, of Woo-jin in the gas mask… I just think it’s politically charged. Do you agree?
Kristine: I do agree that it is politically charged, though how that makes it literary may be going over my head.
Sean: I only mean “literary” in the sense that there are lots of ideas and messages and themes woven into the story in a way that feels more akin to a novelistic structure than a cinematic one.
Kristine: Ok. Sure. I do think Oldboy is tackling a lot more “big” ideas than I Saw the Devil. Besides the stuff about media, the passage of time, the political imagery you noted, and the idea that “the monster” is always with each and every one of us, I think the other big human condition the movie grapples with is loneliness, right? I think it is significant that the prison is in the middle of a busy city, not out in the boonies somewhere. So the prisoners are surrounded by a city teeming with life, and yet they are utterly isolated from it. Several times Dae-su mentions how the television is his only friend. And Woo-jin mentions loneliness over and over, how keeping Dae-su prisoner ebbed his loneliness. Also the fact that he is compelled to “join” Dae-su and Mi-do in bed when they’re passed out. I think Woo-jin kills himself in the elevator because he is so alone, not because he feels any guilt over his sister’s death or the incest or putting Dae-su in some scary illicit prison for 15 years while framing him for murder and then engineering events so he’ll devirginize his own daughter. Nope, he shoots himself just because he didn’t want to be lonely! Do you agree? Thoughts?
Sean: Yeah, I agree. I think the point about loneliness you’re making is right on, and is also dramatized in the film with the “ant” imagery.
Sean: Like, remember Mi-do theorizes that Dae-su hallucinated ants crawling all over him because “They move around in groups, you know.” The idea being that he was craving to be part of “the group,” the rest of humanity. And then we get that flashback to Mi-do alone, crying on the subway, and there’s a giant ant at the other end of the car, indicating that she’s been lonely, too.
Kristine: I liked all the surreal scenes scattered throughout.
Sean: Yes, I love the surrealism also. Some of those moments where the most laugh-out-loud funny for me. Like that moment when Dae-su first escapes and he gets in the elevator with that that scowling retro-styled woman and then the elevator is depicted as a kind of descent to hell, with him screaming… I just thought that was hilarious.
Kristine: I agree!
Sean: What did you think of the infamous squid-eating scene? I read that they had to do three takes, so Choi Min-sik had to eat three different live squids. Apparently Choi Min-sik is a Buddhist, so he had to do a series of Buddhist prayers over each squid before eating them.
Kristine: It was horrible. It was worse than the tongue-cutting scene for me.
Sean: The tentacle grasping at his nose while he’s chewing it?
Kristine: It was too much for me to handle.
The Girl’s Rating: Problematic, but fun as hell AND Stylistic triumph AND Queerer than you’d think.
The Freak’s Rating: Problematic, but fun as hell Stylistic triumph AND Queerer than you’d think.