Last month I posted a review of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the first film in Korean director Chan-wook Park's vengeance trilogy. You can read that here. SFMV was not a good movie. There were some moments that showed talented composition and cinematography, but the plot(s) and acting were not worthwhile. Thankfully I was able to remain as excited to see Oldboy as I had been for about a year since I first heard about it, and I didn't let SFMV prevent me from watching the second film in the trilogy.
Let me try to organize my thoughts about Oldboy. It is very good, just like everyone says. It is violent and twisted and made me think. And now I'm trying to figure out why I wasn't as haunted by it as many of my friends were. So let me break things down.
1) Violence. I have certainly heard quite a few people say that Oldboy is the most violent movie they've ever seen. Certainly, it ranks high on my list, but I think the award for that one still goes to The Passion of the Christ. All of the unbelievably gruesome images in Oldboy happen just out of frame (except for the octopus - which was awesome), whereas in Passion we are forced to watch images of flesh being ripped from bone. The attention to detail in the violent imagery was fantastic, though...Dae-su's calloused knuckles were such an amazing reminder of what he'd put himself through while in captivity.
2) Identity. This is, I think, why I was not as disturbed by the film as my friend Evan was, who was watching it for the second time when he watched it with me last night. I was particularly struck by the making and unmaking of the Beast. My reading of the film was that he was Dae-su at the beginning, the Beast by the time his fifteen years of captivity were over, able to transform back into Dae-su after meeting Mi-do, and the Beast again once he found out the secret. Not without having his memory wiped clean of the secret can he be Dae-su again. This reading was reinforced to me by the separation of the two identities by the hypnotist during the epilogue. Evan could not differentiate between Dae-su and the Beast, and so he felt especially disgusted by the events surrounding the man.
3) The villain? Okay, so I definitely understood Woo-jin to be villain in this movie. Certainly he is the antagonist, but I could see how some people could think that Dae-su/Beast is as much of a villain as Woo-jin. However, he is clearly evil because of how his sister's death has tortured him, and by the time the movie begins, his vengeance has overtaken what was once human in him. I had the hardest time understanding Woo-jin over any other character in the movie though, perhaps because his hatred was so extreme that I had to wonder what his personality was like before Soo-ah's death.
4) Style. Park's directing in this movie is so far beyond what he did with SFMV, and I think I was captivated by every scene. The contrasting foregrounds and backgrounds, the balanced wide-angle shots, the colors and the textures - every moment was beautiful. I was especially impressed by the two shots that I felt bookended the movie. After Dae-su's first year of imprisonment, the camera holds on the painting that hangs in his prison cell. A man's crazed face is dripping with blood, and the first lines of Ella Wheeler Wilcox's poem "Solitude" are painted below his smile, reading, "Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone." The camera then cuts to Dae-su's face, which is grinning, wildly framed by his out-of-control mane, and wide-eyed with dementia. Towards the end of the film, when Dae-su is fighting Woo-jin's bodyguard, his hair covers his blood-covered face, and he grins, the Beast once more.
So, what exactly is Park trying to say about vengeance in this trilogy? Maybe I won't be able to know until after I watch the third film, Lady Vengeance. Until then, I'll keep thinking about it. For now, I'm going to be so glad I didn't let SFMV ruin my expectations for Oldboy, and ruminate on the other amazing bookend to the film, the line, "Even though I'm no more than a beast, don't I, too, have the right to live?" I don't know...