The brilliant 2003 South Korean film Oldboy, directed by directed by Park Chan-wook, is a revenge story. As such, it has to negotiate this genre’s long history, which it manages to do rather successfully by simultaneously subverting and one-upping the genre.
This isn’t true, by the way, of the manga on which the film was based.
But first, fair warning: the 2013 American film, scheduled for release this week, is a remake of the South Korean one, not a new cinematic adaptation of the manga. So if you want to avoid spoilers — of it, the 2003 film, or the manga — don’t read any further.
Oh Dae-su’s Character and Differences with the Manga
Written by Garon Tsuchiya, illustrated by Nobuaki Minegishi, and serialized from 1996 to 1998, the manga stars Shinichi Gotō, who’s been kept in a private prison on a secret floor of a skyscraper for some ten years. Not only does he not know who put him there or why, but he also suffers from amnesia. After being abruptly released in the manga’s first (of 79) chapters, he doesn’t focus on revenge or even learning the truth behind what’s been done to him; instead, he meets a young and virginal girl named Eri and tries to start a normal life, despite surveillance from the man responsible for his imprisonment: his high-school classmate, Takaaki Kakinuma. True, Kakinuma is motivated by revenge, having been traumatized by the protagonist in a classroom incident. But the villain’s schemes, while they create an atmosphere of paranoia, don’t succeed in breaking Shinichi Gotō. In fact, this protagonist remains rather stoic throughout the whole story, even in flashbacks to his time in prison. When he pursues those who incarcerated him, he seems to do so more out of curiosity than revenge, all while retaining the same stoic demeanor.
In contrast, the protagonist of the 2003 film — which transfers the action to South Korea and renames characters appropriately — is depicted as drunk and disrespecting cops while under arrest on the day of his abduction. While in his prison only a few days, we see Oh Dae-su curse at his guard and say, “I saw your face, asshole. You’re dead if I get out.” This suggests he’s more than a little unhinged. He raves, hurts himself, and clearly battles madness during his incarceration — which is 15 years long, as opposed to the 10 years in the manga.
Like Shinichi Gotō, Oh Dae-su trains himself physically while imprisoned, but Oh Dae-su explicitly does so to someday get revenge. While in prison, he keeps a journal, in which he tries to figure out who could have done this to him by writing down everyone he’s hurt or who could have had a gripe against him. It’s voluminous, suggesting he wasn’t a very nice guy.
When he’s released (he memorably wake up in a large trunk), Oh Dae-su, like his Japanese equivalent, meets a young girl; the South Korean version is named Mido. In fact, she’s a sushi chef, and he orders something living — another sign that he’s perhaps a bit unhinged. He’s delivered a live octopus, and Mido begins to suggest that she cut it (as is traditional) before he begins devouring it whole. This isn’t computer-generated, by the way; four were eaten alive to make this scene, and you can see their tentacles attaching to his hand, one sucker at a time, as his teeth tear through their still-living bodies. It’s one of many images in the film that’s hard to forget.
Just as he was in prison, the released Oh Dae-su quickly focuses on discovering who imprisoned him and why — and on getting revenge. Accordingly, the movie’s a lot more violent than the manga. (It’s has a little less sex too, for what it’s worth.)
Both the manga and the movie feature early scenes in which their released protagonists test the physique they acquired in prison. In the manga, this comes off as a martial arts scene, in which the muscle-bound, glamorous protagonist lures some punks into attacking him in order to justify taking their money, since he has none. In the movie’s version, the older, shorter, and far less glamorous Oh Dae-su comes off as a bit unhinged, uncertain whether his self-training will apply in real life. There’s a suicidal edge to his actions that the manga lacks.
This early fight scene also differs from the comic in that Oh Dae-su doesn’t take his attacker’s money. It would have been easy for the film to copy this, but instead a stranger shows up and hand Oh Dae-su a wallet filled with money. (He also hands Oh Dae-su a cellular phone, which someone does in the manga too; but the movie combines this money, rather than adding that to the fight scene.) This choice, along with the surveillance we see in both versions, underlines how much the villain continues to manipulate things, even after the protagonist has been released. It’s an important point, to which we’ll return later.
In fact, this and other fight scenes feel very much like a much more realistic version of the Batman story, in which a character makes himself, through training and sheer willpower, into a force to be reckoned. Both are also motivated by trauma and (depending on which version of Batman you read) more than a little bit unhinged. Arguably, Batman is a revenge story too. Of course, what motivates these two characters’ training is rather different — one’s in prison, after all. But both protagonists lose their families: in prison, Oh Dae-su isn’t only cut off from his wife and young daughter, but he learns that his wife has been killed, a murder for which he’s blamed. The two characters — and thus their stories — are also different in terms of class: Bruce Wayne’s wealth might allow the character lots of gadgets, but the fact that a wealthy man would see beating up criminals as the best way to fight crime (rather than, say, philanthropy) has long created tensions for the character. In the case of Oh Dae-su, it’s the villain who’s rich.
But the biggest difference is in the fight scenes. Even Christopher Nolan, whose Batman films have been praised for their realism, Batman never seems to tire during the most challenging of fights, which are filmed like the glitzy martial arts sequences they are. In one of the Oldboy‘s most famous scenes, Oh Dae-su returns to the secret floor of the skyscraper in which he was held for 15 years. After extracting several teeth from a man’s head, he fights a whole crowd of younger men who work there in one of the facility’s corridors. The scene is filmed as one long, continuous take. (Nolan’s fight scenes involve so much quick-cutting that viewers sometimes can’t always tell where the characters are, or how they’re moving.) This single scene reportedly took seventeen days to perfect. Oh Dae-su parries and punches, but he’s knocked down and beaten more than once. At one point, he’s stabbed in the back; the knife was the only thing in the scene that was computer-generated. Most remarkably, Oh Dae-su holds his knee and braces against the wall several times. He gets winded. His form isn’t perfect. Near the end, he scrambles back along the floor, as one defeated man, writhing in pain, still manage feebly toss a stick. Even though the fight’s choreographed, it preserves the sense of chaos that’s so much a part of actual, real-world fights. It’s a chaos that prohibits perfect form, or the possibility that anyone could be so skilled that their victory is guaranteed over a large number of opponents. And Oh Dae-su comes off as an even more impressive fighter because of this realism, because he’s not superhuman. It’s the perfect antidote to silly Hollywood blockbusters, in which so-called heroes without magical powers routinely perform ridiculous martial arts feats, many of which no human could do, all while looking glamorous throughout — except, of course, for the obligatory dust and scratches, which hint at a real struggle we never actually see.
Trumping the Revenge Plot
Impressive as this is, such violence exists as a function of the revenge plot, without which it’s meaningless. Fortunately, it’s here where the movie most excels, improving on the manga and trumping other revenge plots in various media.
For one thing, this is a movie conscious that it’s a revenge plot, which exists in a continuum of other such plots. You don’t have to be a postmodern revenge movie for the characters to be occasionally meditative on whether revenge will ultimately bring them satisfaction. Or what will replace revenge, to give their lives meaning, when that revenge is over.
One way the movie enhances its revenge plot, however, is by retaining an attribute from the manga, which isn’t really a revenge story. In the manga, the villain’s motivated by a classroom slight — certainly nothing that would seem to justify the tremendous expense (not to mention the maliciousness) of imprisoning someone for a decade. In the movie, the villain’s motivated by a similar slight. True, Lee Woo-jin blames his sister’s suicide on Oh Dae-su, which is admittedly a big deal. But the wrong committed by Oh Dae-su is a single comment he made to a friend, while also asking that this friend not pass the information on. The friend apparently didn’t listen, leading to rumors about the sister’s promiscuity, which culminated in her suicide.
Oh Dae-su was transferring to a different school at the time he made this comment, so he didn’t hear about the girl’s suicide. His comment to his friend was so inconsequential that Oh Dae-su has forgotten about it. He seems to have filled whole notebooks with his offenses against various people, yet he never thought of this. Amusingly, he blames Lee Woo-jin for erasing this memory through the hypnosis practiced upon him in the prison. This makes sense within the film, but it may also be read as metatextual, since the protagonist of the manga suffered from amnesia. Cleverly, Lee Woo-jin says he didn’t erase this memory; Oh Dae-su (understandably, given that he was changing schools) didn’t care enough to remember.
This comment raises an important point. Usually, the worse a transgression, the more a character is motivated as a result. But what’s key isn’t only the depth of the transgression; it’s how much someone cares about it. And Lee Woo-jin cares very much. Not only because he has to blame someone for his sister’s death. But also because Lee Woo-jin had an incestuous relationship with his sister.
This is utterly new to the movie, and it — along with his sister’s suicide — helps explain the depths of his need for revenge on Oh Dae-su. It’s clear that Lee Woo-jin still loves his sister, and the actor Yoo Ji-tae does an excellent job of portraying this pain. Without him saying anything, you feel like he had the other half of his soul taken from him, from which he’s never recovered.
It’s a radical way to undercut the usual revenge plot, in which the more horrible the inciting incident, the more justified the entire narrative becomes. The prototype of revenge story is still Aeschylus’s Oresteia, the only surviving Ancient Greek trilogy. In it, the inciting incident for Clytemnestra’s revenge against her husband, Agamemnon, is the latter having ordered the slaughter of their daughter, Iphigenia, in order to satisfy the gods. That’s a pretty big deal. In Quentin Tarantino’s two-part Kill Bill (2003-2004), the Bride’s entire wedding party is slaughtered on her wedding day, and she’s shot too, putting her in a coma (during which she’s raped) and causing her to believe her unborn child has been killed too. Again, pretty big deal. Oh Dae-su himself has been imprisoned illegally for 15 years. But Lee Woo-jin’s revenge is motivated by a single offhand comment, which started a rumor.
But of course, that actual inciting incident for revenge could be anything; its horror is multiplied by how much the offended person cares about it. And when that’s perceived as the cause of a sister’s death, with whom the offended person had an incestuous relationship, that person cares quite a good deal.
Making the inciting incident so apparently minor undercuts the typical revenge scenario. But suggesting that the offense is only relevant for the very personal response it spurs deconstructs the genre.
There’s something evocative about this feud going back to high school, to youth. But there’s also something evocative about the power of rumor that’s evoked here.
Oh Dae-su is known to be promiscuous, which seems to go back to his high school days. At the very least, he’s known as a flirt in high school. But a simply rumor that she was promiscuous was enough to spur Lee Woo-jin’s sister to commit suicide.
This seems to be a recognition of the sexism of the society being depicted. In a flashback, we see Lee Woo-jin’s sister reading Sylvia Plath, which seems like a rather obvious reference to the poet’s famous suicide. But Plath’s writing also addressed the plight and emotional life of women, which reminds us that the way a rumor of promiscuity can destroy a girl’s life is, of course, gendered. Although this sexism isn’t ever directly addressed by the film, depicting how rumor can destroy a girl, in a way that it can’t a boy, helps to at least slightly redeem some of the sexist overtones of the overall film. For example, at one point, Oh Dae-su ties Mido up, thinking he can’t trust her, and then proceeds to take notes on her body during a phone call. Shortly thereafter, villains find her tied up and bare her breasts, with the implied threat of rape. So while the inciting incident for Lee Woo-jin’s revenge is minor, it’s also gendered and helps to redeem — at least a bit — some of the sexist tensions within the film.
Of course, it would be easy to say that incest has been included as shock value, in a movie that’s also got brutal violence and a live octopus being eaten. In fact, this incest ends up being key to the entire plot, which is so much better because of incest.
(Yes, I did just type that sentence. I know it looks weird. Just trust me.)
Remember when I said that there are hints throughout about the extent to which Lee Woo-jin has been manipulating Oh Dae-su? In the climax, Oh Dae-su confronts the villain about the villain’s incestuous relationship with his sister. Lee Woo-jin, saddened by these memories, brilliantly turns the tables. He tells Oh Dae-su that the real question wasn’t who incarcerated him, nor why, but why he was released. Naturally, that too has been part of Lee Woo-jin’s revenge plan.
The pieces come together like Lee Woo-jin’s dressing area, which is split into four sections that open and close on a motion detector. During his climactic speech, Lee Woo-jin is busy dressing, putting himself together for what is, essentially, the culmination of his life, the point where all his plans come together, where the perspective lines converge.
In both the movie and the manga, the villain uses surveillance to monitor the protagonist. In the manga, this involves an implant in the protagonist’s back, which isn’t in the movie. Both versions’ villains also use hypnotism; while the extent of this isn’t revealed, in either case, until the conclusion, in the movie this is actually shown during the early prison sequence, so that this element is present virtually all along. We see a female hypnotist attending to Oh Dae-su just before he’s released, and when Oh Dae-su is first given the chance to talk (on a cellular phone) with the man who had him incarnerated, he mentions hypnotism, as if he’s concerned about how far this might have gone. So when we learn the extent of the villain’s manipulations, it’s better woven into the plot.
In both versions, we discover that the villain has used hypnotism to bring the protagonist together with his much younger love interest. In the manga, Takaaki Kakinuma has the young virgin Eri hypnotized merely to help monitor protagonist Shinichi Goto, as well as to add to his burdens. Going to such lengths to give someone you loathe a young and attractive lover isn’t a very convincing motivation, when you think about it. On this point, the movie improves upon the framework provided by the manga.
Lee Woo-jin has also had Mido hypnotized. We briefly flash back to when Oh Dae-su and Mido met, when Oh Dae-su answered a call on the cellular phone he’d just been given. We learn that the phrases exchanges were actually triggers, activating hypnotic suggestions. Mido and Oh Dae-su’s love was part of Lee Woo-jin’s plan.
It’s in the full version of the scene in which the couple meets (but not in the flashback) that Oh Dae-su mentions hypnosis on the phone, demanding to know what was done to him. It was all right there. Oh Dae-su even collapses strangely, which we might initially take as a sign of his exhaustion or as comic relief, but which we now understand was so sudden because it was a hypnotically programmed response.
We soon learn why Lee Woo-jin would arrange a lover for his enemy. Oh Dae-su opens a box, and inside finds a photo album that he flips through. It begins with photos of his daughter, who was about three when Oh Dae-su disappeared. We watch her age, photo after photo, until we can’t ignore the inevitable: she is Mido. Lee Woo-jin has not only made Oh Dae-su commit incest but fall in love with his own daughter.
Revenge plots often compete with one another is in the extent of the revenge, and one of the rarest — and most amazing — ways of taking revenge is for the person taking revenge to transfer a character trait onto his target. Public scorn would be an obvious example: someone who falls from grace might seek to make the person he blames suffer in the same way. While not a revenge story, the great coup of Se7en is that the serial killer gets the policeman to kill, not only fulfilling the serial killer’s schemes but also bringing out in the policeman the urge to kill, which is supposed to be what separates the two characters. Here, the trait being transferred isn’t only the physical act of incest, but the love the accompanies it in Lee Woo-jin. It’s not enough to make someone commit incest; one has to make that person want to continue committing it.
In all these stories, in which a villain seeks to transfer his suffering onto his target, there’s a sense of the villain seeking empathy. The hero cannot identify with the villain and judges the villain’s deeds as monstrous. For the sensitive and subtle villain, there’s no victory greater than getting the hero to see — and even to feel from — your perspective.
It’s as if incest is a meme, and Lee Woo-jin is intent upon transferring it, even at great cost to his person. It’s a delicate operation.
At the beginning of the movie, Oh Dae-su asserts that his name means ”getting through one day at a time.” This refers to his directionless, troubled nature. But it also refers to how he can’t see the big picture. If Oh Dae-su acts one day at a time, Lee Woo-jin acts over decades.
In most thrillers, the love interest is little more than a B-plot, which only connects to the main drama when the love interest becomes either a colleague or a damsel in distress. Here, the love interest is the vehicle of revenge. It’s been part of the A-plot all along. There is no B-plot.
It’s a classic case of misdirection. But it’s also a structural coup, in which what seem like disparate elements of the film’s narration converge horrifically, like shattered glass coming into focus.
Yes, it’s a twist. But like the best twist, it makes more sense of what’s come before.
To be concluded.