“Oldboy” and the Insatiable Desire for Vengeance

Min-sik Choi in "Oldboy"

Min-sik Choi in “Oldboy”

After calling his daughter on a payphone, Dae-su steps out into the rainy street only to suddenly vanish moments later. He will spend the next 15 years of his life trapped in a private prison for reasons both he and the audience do not know. He is fed the same dumplings for every meal and gassed to sleep each night, a television set his only companion. Once he is spontaneously released one day instead of being granted freedom, he is indebted with the mission of discovering who imprisoned him, and more importantly why.

The middle installment of Korean director Chan-wook Park’s Vengeance Trilogy, Oldboy tells an utterly disturbing tale of revenge, charting how far one will go to achieve it. During his imprisonment, and after, Dae-su is obsesses over finding and killing the person who stole 15 years of his life, the same person who murdered Dae-su’s wife and framed him in the process. So consumed with rage and hate Dae-su fails to consider the possibility that his imprisonment was someone else’s revenge on him. This vicious cycle folds in on itself revealing man’s unquenchable desire for vengeance in a thriller that ceases to shock with unimaginable horrors.

“Revenge is good for your health, but pain you will find again,” Dae-su proclaims. Oldboy recounts the rush of satisfaction and control revenge lends, but which also soon decays into the deep wounds beneath. Dae-su could kill every man in sight—and he nearly does in one fantastic hallway shot where he takes on fifteen gangsters with his fists and a hammer—but that wouldn’t give him back the years or the family he lost. Dae-su’s imprisoner also won’t be healed nor consoled by the torture he bestows upon Dae-su, since his revenge goes to inconceivable depths as we discover in the film’s final appalling twist. So if revenge is truly insatiable, what is the point?

Park demonstrates the extreme, brutal extents one will go to bestow pain on another in order to assuage their own suffering. Oldboy may come off a bit hyperbolic and excessive in its extremes, such as Dae-su ripping the prison keeper’s teeth out one by one with a hammer—which is far milder to the rest of the film’s violence—but this merely shows man at his most barbaric. Like so many other great thrillers, Oldboy is wants to make us cringe, push past our limits of comfort, and test our ability to keep watching: how far will we go to see the revenge accomplished?

After all the blood has squirted and the unerasable secrets have been revealed all the afflicted have left is their memory of the agony, unforgettable no matter how much revenge is sought. It is only once the men can learn to forgive their tormentor and themselves that they can truly begin to heal. But do Dae-su and his persecutor want to heal or do they simply want to exhaust their own pain on others? Park leaves Oldboy open-ended and leaves us with an uncomfortable mess of grisly images and stories to recover from on our own as we wonder how far is too far.