Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Watch a man eat a live octopus, and what have any of us learned?
The octopus dinner is probably the most notorious scene in Oldboy, though the tooth extraction by hammer is a close second. There are other candidates, but I won’t mention them here. In a shock movie like this, such things count as spoilers.
Tying all of the nastiness together, ostensibly, is the theme of revenge. After being abducted during a night of drunken carousing, Korean businessman Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is imprisoned in a single room for 15 years. Then, without warning or explanation, he’s released, free to pick up with his life or dedicate it to unmasking his anonymous captor and obtaining vengeance.
There is a lot of talk about revenge in Oldboy. “When my vengeance is over, can I return to being Oh Dae-su?” he asks the obliging mystery girl (Kang Hye-jeong) who assists him in his mission. Later, Oh Dae-su is given a choice: “Revenge? Or the truth?” As is usually the case when a movie spends a lot of time talking about something, said movie isn’t really about that topic. In Oldboy, revenge is a thematic MacGuffin, the meaningless plot element on which the action turns.
Revenge is a thematic MacGuffin, the meaningless plot element on which the action turns.
The proof is in the filmmaking panache. Writer-director Park Chan-wook has fashioned a picture that, on a narrative level, seems to be about the awfulness and inhumanity of vengeance. But watch how his film moves. Oldboy is never more alive and excited as when Oh Dae-su is wielding his hammer. In one of the film’s more tantalizing set pieces – a one-on-20 hallway brawl that Park captures in a single, sideways tracking shot – it’s not the fear or anger or desperation of vengeance that the movie wants us to feel. It’s the thrill.
In this way, Oldboy resembles an American picture of its era: Saw. The torture-porn trendsetter held a similarly exploitative take on vengeance, and was likewise never happier than when depicting the ripping of human flesh. They share a fundamental dishonesty; these are movies that aesthetically celebrate the very thing they thematically deny.
I’d like to defend Oldboy’s shock tactics, to say that they capture the perversity of revenge by depicting how, once enacted, vengeance pulls everything it grasps into the same deadly maw. (Like an octopus’ tentacles – get it?) But for me to profess that would be hollow. Almost as hollow as Oldboy professing that revenge is anything but good, grisly fun.