Second Breakfast Tries to Make Sense of Oldboy

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Some of you may have heard of the upcoming film Stoker. Those of you who actually write for this blog may not have heard that I called dibs on reviewing it. I did. I did call dibs. Well, watching the trailers and looking at ads for Stoker, I’ve been intrigued, but I haven’t really known what to think. Other than Mia Wasikowski, one thing really caught my eye: the tagline, “From the director of Oldboy.” Foolishly, I thought to myself, “Oh, I should watch Oldboy.”

Oldboy (2003)

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Egg Films
Good, clean, wholesome fun for the whole family.
Ed note: You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy this movie on Amazon

The Plot: Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is a regular, working, South Korean family man. One night he is kidnapped and taken to a mysterious location where he is imprisoned and tortured for fifteen years, until one day he is just as mysteriously set free. Confused, angry, and having spent the past fifteen years prepping for a killing spree, he decides to hunt down the people who did this to him, equal parts for answers and vengeance.

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Egg Films
Heh, that’s a fun scene.

I usually try not to speak while I’m watching a movie, even if I’m just watching a movie alone, but my viewing of Oldboy was frequently interrupted by such exclamations as “OH GOD,” and “WHY?” and “*********.” As the plot progresses, everything just gets steadily worse and worse. Yeah, think about that. Everything gets worse from a starting point of kidnapped and tortured for fifteen years, so put that in perspective. The most lighthearted thing in this movie is when the main character eats a live octopus? Wait, is that right? Let me think back… Yeah. As I was progressing deeper into this film I found myself reminded of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in levels of sexual depravity and violence, BUT THEN IT GOT WORSE.

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Egg Films
Yum!

Obviously, I was not totally prepared for this film. Still, that having been said, it was not the most shocking or unpleasant viewing experience of my life. It wasn’t like that time I had to spend the first semester of college watching David Lynch movies. Seventeen/eighteen-year-old Chris was not prepared for that. Oldboy was no Blue Velvet, a film that I immediately followed up with A Clockwork Orange. Man, that was a good way to start a semester. In fact, I’m probably just blowing things out of proportion. Oldboy is in no way the most depraved film I’ve seen. It’s not because of what’s shown on screen or what’s implied off screen… actually, I’m not really sure what it is. Damn it. That’s basically my entire reaction to this film in a nutshell: I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO THINK.

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Egg Films
A self-portrait I took during the viewing.

Ok, buddy, just calm down. Take a breath. Review the evidence. Hey, I have an idea, let’s make a chart!

Rape Murder Torture Self-mutilation
Oldboy Yes Yes Yes Yes
Blue Velvet Yes Yes Yes No
A Clockwork Orange Yes Yes Yes No
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Yes Yes Yes No

Oh… actually, looking objectively at it, I guess Oldboy is worse. Self-mutilation is such a wildcard category, I know. Maybe it’s a little unfair to include it in the competition… but it plays such a major role in Oldboy, what with the self-applied tattoos and that horrifying use of rusty scissors. I’m gonna keep it!

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Egg Films
I’ve tried, but I just can’t think of a good caption for this one.

All right, enough about all of that, though. Oldboy is a much loved and critically acclaimed movie, much like Blue Velvet, A Clockwork Orange, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which might say something about the society in which we live. In all fairness, though, this is an incredibly well made film. Writer/director Chan-wook Park really made some big waves with this project, and rightfully so. I can’t single out any one scene as particularly well directed, because the whole film is so consistent. He slinks flawlessly in and out of long shots, close-ups, steady cam, shaky cam, etc. Even the best directors occasionally have trouble that. Two great directors I’ve complained about recently are Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty, not knowing how to direct talking scenes and Tom Hooper for Les Misérables, not knowing where to put his goddamn camera throughout the entire movie. Park clearly gave every shot a lot of thought. The camera is always positioned in just the right place to create the desired effect of the scene, so bravo for that.

This is also an impeccably well-acted movie. The entire ensemble gives powerful, understated performances, despite the source material. No one overacts, and everything is so hard-hitting. Not even the villain is too crazy. We have no Dennis Hoppers here. Wait… that’s the second time in as many weeks that I have referenced Dennis Hopper from Blue Velvet. I thought I’d finally put that movie behind me. I THOUGHT IT WAS IN THE PAST. I need to stop using caps so much in this article… also ellipses.

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Egg Films
Oh, but hugging is nice, though, right? You can’t ruin hugging.

I have no trouble understanding why the film is praised for its direction, performances, editing, screenplay, music, cinematography; let me rephrase: I have no trouble understanding why the film is praised for its everything, because its everything is really good. I just don’t understand why it exists. Blue Velvet exists because David Lynch had something serious to say about the natures of good and evil. A Clockwork Orange exists because Stanley Kubrick had something serious to say about the extent to which humans should be free. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo exists because the book was really freaking popular. But Oldboy? I’m just not sure what Oldboy is trying to say, except that the world is terrible and there are terrible people in it and they will always be terrible because that’s life; life is terrible. Why does that need to be said? Can’t it go unsaid? Does it not kind of go unsaid?

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Egg Films
Apparently not.

About a year ago I watched Jeff Nichols’ film Take Shelter. That’s a brilliant film, and it injured my soul and I felt depressed for, like, a solid week afterwards. Shortly thereafter I watched Bicycle Thieves (a top ten film to be sure) and the same thing happened. Though it hasn’t been a week, I can already tell that Oldboy is going to stick with me in a bad way, like a much more viscerally disturbing Take Shelter. Alas, I brought this upon myself. Whatever, though, I’m still kinda pumped for Stoker, or “stoked” if you will.

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Fox Searchlight
Boy, does that ever look like a good time?

5 thoughts on “Second Breakfast Tries to Make Sense of Oldboy

  1. It is part of a trilogy called the revenge trilogy! haha I had to watch this plus one of the other three, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, in a class…Sympathy is waay more disturbing but just as well made, and has more of a point. you should try that one!

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