It's a Korean deconstruction of revenge films, brutally dissecting the genre from the inside out. I was expecting something extreme, but not this twisted.
These days, the term "revenge movie" suggests something with a particular narrative shape. Bad guys do vile things. Then, in the second half, their victim(s) will then take revenge, thus providing a Neanderthal kind of justice even when the vengeance being wreaked is grotesquely over-the-top. The Last House on the Left, Death Wish, Chul-soo Jang's Bedevilled
, etc. These are movies to please your inner caveman. It's an Old Testament approach to righting wrongs and thus, in a way, morally reassuring.
Oldboy subverts all that. It's not reassuring in any conceivable way, despite deliberately setting us up to expect a conventional revenge flick. Note the opening, with our Oldboy (Min-sik Choi) on a rooftop with someone who's just one necktie away from becoming pavement pizza. We then jump into a flashback. "Min-sik Choi's about to have a really bad day," we say to ourselves, although even someone who's used to Korean films might be surprised by the arbitrary cat-and-mouse cruelty that's coming. My father failed to understand a major plot point, not unreasonably assuming that a certain act of arbitrary cruelty must have been done by the authorities. This confused him for the rest of the film. ("What had he done? Why was he sent to prison?" "No, Dad...")
Another comprehension barrier for Dad, incidentally, was the age gap between Ji-tae Yu and Min-sik Choi. The latter is clearly about fifteen years older than the former, yet the flashback scenes would seem to suggest that they should be about the same age. In fairness, Park Chan-wook had been going to cast Han Suk-kyu and had reservations about Ji-tae Yu's youth, but Choi suggested Yu and in fairness he's very good in the role.
Anyway, Min-sik Choi doesn't merely have a bad day. It lasts for fifteen years, at the end of which you'd think it normal for him to have been turned into a psychopath. (That's my father's professional opinion as a clinical psychologist, by the way. Psychopaths can be made. It doesn't have to be just genetics.)
So that's the set-up. Min-sik Choi had been keeping himself busy by drawing a human outline on the wall and inflicting violence on it until his hands were a pool of blood. He's back in the outside world and he has a claw hammer. He's looking for the people who did all this to him. You might want to look away from some of the things he does with his hammer, while in addition he's now sufficiently unhinged that you might gape at the physical feats he's now capable of. I'd never seen anything like that fight scene in the corridor. He doesn't even seem to notice a knife in the back, for instance. Yes, he's a nutter, but even given his earlier exercise regime, surely you'd have expected deterioration of muscle tone?
So far, though, it's all nice, juicy set-up for a traditional revenge film. If you locked Oldboy and James Bond in a cage, you'd have to stop and think about who'd come out alive. He's looking for his enemies and he's not too particular about the body count. You might, perhaps, have been given pause by what the film ended up doing with the "neckie on the roof" scene, but that's not incompatible with a hero who's an out-of-control psychopath.
The film then beats to death your assumptions. This indeed a film about elaborate, horrific revenge, but so out of proportion to the crime it's supposedly avenging that yet again Dad had to talk it through afterwards to get his head around it. Apparent psychopaths humiliate themselves. It turns into a film of love, but taken somewhere that you'd be better off not discussing when your mum asks what happened in the end. (Answer: "you don't want to know.")
In fairness, the ending is ambiguous. Dad and I disagreed on the meaning of the final smile, although as it happened neither of us disagreed about what was going to happen next. We agreed that what we'd seen via Ji-tae Yu in the flashbacks didn't have to be objective truth, though, even if this desperately broken man had convinced himself that it was.
It's a staggering film, frankly. Not all critics were impressed, but that'll be in large part because you've got to go to a desperately dark place to be able to see what Chan-wook Park's doing. A normal person's brain might simply shut down if exposed to this film. My father belongs to a film club of retired gentlefolk who meet every month in a church hall, from which he said he'd be excommunicated if he showed them this film. (Twenty-four eyes, on the other hand, will go down a storm with them.) It's also the middle film in Chan-wook Park's Vengeance Trilogy, between Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005), but the films have no plot links and were only dubbed a trilogy by international critics because of their common themes. You don't need to watch them in order or anything.
It's not the darkest Korean film I've ever seen, but it's probably the most twisted. It's based on a Japanese manga, but the scriptwriters made changes. It won't leave you in a happy place. However I thought it was intelligent, uncompromising and fascinating in its deliberately uncomfortable take on the morality of revenge films.