The other night I watched the movie Oldboy. It is a Korean film that plays with the norms of the revenge film. It featured some of the most depraved film violence that I have ever seen. Whatever you are expecting, from the revenge films that you have previously seen, you won’t see what’s coming at the end. I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me, which doesn’t necessarily translate to enjoyment.
A careless drunken Korean businessman is imprisoned for 15 years. Why he is imprisoned is the mystery that is at the heart of the movie. Once he escapes he decides to solve this mystery and seek revenge on those that imprisoned him. To tell you anymore of the plot would be to spoil it.
To be honest I can’t say if I liked this film or not and I definitely can’t think of who I would recommend it to. I have an extremely strong stomach for violence in cinema, and I found myself squirming at times. Although there is graphic physical violence the emotional violence that takes place is every bit as harrowing, if not more so.
What purpose does a movie like this serve in our culture? It’s not escapist in nature. Although the cinematography is really well done it is not a moving painting like certain works by David Lynch. Although you could not call the film dumb, it doesn’t necessarily have any deep probing intellectual questions.
However, to say the movie has no worth would be easy and probably not fair. First of all, as previously stated it is a Korean film. Although it steals from Western culture, it is not entirely based upon it. There may be some misunderstanding on my part. It was based on the Manga comics that are popular in Asia. In Asia these comics are popular in ways that our comics are not. When I was in Japan I saw many businessmen and other adults waiting for trains reading them. I also have a book on Japanese folklore, while that obviously being a different culture than Korean culture, that’s tales of revenge were reverberating through my mind as I watched the film. In the folklore book that I read there were many stories that started out with rules about honor, and once these rules were broken things descended into the most extreme forms of bloodshed.
Also the film again plays with what we have come to expect from these kinds of films. Again, I don’t want to spoil it, but let’s just say the ending doesn’t leave you with the satiated feeling that most revenge films leave you with. In fact I think part of the idea of the film is a comment on revenge in film itself. While most movies leave you feeling a sense of resolve, like loose threads have been tied, this one doesn’t. In fact it leaves you almost feeling like you participated in a crime!
I love the language of cinema and I love when movies play with conventions. As long as a movie tries to do something original I try not to write it off. I don’t like things that are shocking just to be shocking. Something like the Saw movies holds no interest for me. That being said many of my favorite movies are extreme in nature. I enjoy when story tellers go into unexplored country, whatever the nature of that country might be.
I do love well done genre films. Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula is a film that I have been thinking about recently. Despite it containing an array of horrors there is a dark Victorian beauty to it. There may be no value to it in terms of learning anything about life, but it is a piece of art. Every shot is like looking at a sculpture on a gothic cathedral.
I also like movies that are well done as pieces of escapism. Films that are so entertaining that you forget where you are and can relax for a couple of hours.
All of that being said this is one of those rare times when I can’t decide if what I gazed upon watching Oldboy was good or bad. I can’t tell if sitting through this movie had any artistic value or not. Although it is fading in my mind every day, I know that parts of it will stick with me, like some half remembered nightmare. Does glancing into a vivid nightmare enhance human experience at all? I don’t know. However, if you are looking for something you haven’t seen before, you may want to take the risk.