Vengeance dominates the modern action cinema, but to be a work of art, a revenge film needs to give you something more than your sadistic jollies. It needs to show the cost of revenge to the revenger, to innocent bystanders, and to society—which can’t survive if injustice goes unpunished but also can’t survive if individuals routinely take matters into their own hands. The important vengeance sagas of our drama— The Oresteia, Hamlet, such Jacobean revenger tragedies as, well, The Revenger’s Tragedy—portray revenge as both natural and cataclysmic, whereas in modern movies it’s just action business as usual.
I have found my great vengeance director now in Park Chan-Wook, a galvanic, 41-year-old South Korean filmmaker whose Oldboy (Tartan Films) won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. Park understands the Western obsession with an eye for an eye (or an eye and a nose and many teeth for an eye), but he also imbues his Punch and Judy bloodbaths with a morbid Eastern detachment: Somewhere along the way, he mucks up the one-to-one correspondence between tit and tat.
Park’s last film, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, is one of the most twisted and disturbing I’ve seen: It builds to a scenario in which parallel revengers wreak havoc on each other’s lives. Neither is entirely in the wrong (one of the characters, a father, is avenging the death of his young daughter), but there’s no jolt of triumph in the end—just a bloody mess and a tragic sense of waste.
Oldboy has a simpler narrative architecture, but its morals are every bit as twisty. Park opens with a thunderous prologue, in which a mop-headed man with dark eyes dangles another man off a roof by his tie. Before we have the faintest idea what’s going on, we meet Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-Sik), an ordinary Seoul businessman in the throes of an epic bender on his young daughter’s birthday: The jump-cuts as he raves in the police station capture his fractured perception and portend the horror to come. Released, Oh Dae-Su staggers into the rainy night, phones his daughter, and then disappears—ending up in another prison, a private one in which food is shoved through a hole in a door and sleeping gas pours in through the vents.
He screams and bangs on the door: Why is he there? Oh Dae-Su learns from a TV set that his wife has been murdered and that his blood and hair were found at the scene. He has been framed—but by whom? He slices into his arm to mark each passing year, and there are 15 slices before he wakes to find himself on the roof holding a man by the tie.
The vertigo of that rooftop opening presages the vertigo of the entire movie, which is like a switchback ride into a swamp of bones. As Oh Dae-Su sets out to find out who locked him up—and more important, why—it’s clear that his tormentor is beside him every step of the way, controlling him, addicted to watching him suffer. It’s hard to say which is the more ferocious revenger: the man whose wife was killed and daughter lost, or the man who is pulling the strings.
To reveal any more would rob you of the precious disorientation that Oldboy instills—disorientation and vertigo and nausea. Choi Min-Sik is a riveting actor, with deep, black, plaintive eyes that seem to be turned inward, gazing at his own burgeoning monstrousness; when his hair sticks up like an electrified mop, it completes him.
The central relationship between Oh Dae-Su and a lovely young woman named Mido (Gang Hye-jung) is tender and nuanced, but the violence everywhere else is sadistic and extreme. Even the meals approach the Theater of Cruelty: After Oh Dae-Su demands something living at a sushi bar, he proceeds to consume a live octopus (I mean, a live live octopus) before our eyes, then retches and passes out.
Obviously, this sort of taboo-flouting imagery isn’t for everyone, but Park’s vision is all of a piece. He came of age in a period of South Korean upheaval, and in his work there’s a pervasive distrust of authority combined with a pervasive lack of faith in individuals—most of whom appear to have been warped beyond salvation by an unstable society. Oldboy is a movie where you think you’re in hell from the first frame—but have no inkling of the infernal circles to come. It says the only thing worse than not getting revenge is … getting revenge.