When your only tool is a hammer

I’m still not exactly sure what I want to say about Oldboy.

Let’s start at the beginning, I suppose. Some good long time ago, I hung up the 100 Movies Bucket List in my office and began very slowly working my way through the titles that I hadn’t yet seen.

And I mean VERY slowly. ‘Cos after watching and posting about Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, that was it.

And that was it because I kept looking at the next little square on my poster.

6 squares on the 100 Movies Busket List poster. 3 are all the way scratched off: Blade Runner, A Clockwork Orange, The Deer Hunter. 1 is halfway scratched off: Snatch. 2 are untouched: Old Boy and Leon: The Professional. The square for Old Boy is marked with a post-it flag.

It’s no great mystery why I was dragging my feet here. I’d heard the film was ultraviolent—which it is—and I’d heard it was disturbing—which it also is, though not in the way I was expecting.

It’s just the kind of film that is very much not my bag, and I couldn’t summon the gumption to watch it. Especially once 2020 became…. well, 2020.

And I know I could have skipped over this box and gone onto to something I was more in the mood for. Except I didn’t. Not 100% sure why. I think in part I was imagining that I’d keep skipping this one, again and again, until it was the absolute last film to scratch off my poster, and I didn’t want that.

So, once our library system opened up enough that we can get interlibrary loans again (woot!), I asked for the DVD to be shipped to me from Groton. And now I can say I’ve checked off this box on my poster.

Spoilers right below the jump!

[CW: ultraviolence, torture, dismemberment, sucide, incest]

So, aside from the completionist in me enjoying being able to scratch off another square on my poster, what did I think?

*shrug emoji*

I can’t deny the skill, the style, the visceral energy of the film-making and the performances. There are undeniably bravura moments, including the octopus dinner and the hallway fight scene that was done in one single shot.

A closeup of he DVD case for Oldboy: the title is in glowing letters against a night sky, surrounded by neon signs in Korean. A sticker reading "Groton Public Library" is on the upper left corner, and the following quote is on the upper right: "...arrives with the Quentin Tarantino seal of approval" -- Walter Addiego, San Francisco Chronicle

But for all the supposedly-shocking twists and turns of the plot, I gotta tell you that as soon as Mido looks at Dae-su in the sushi bar and asks “Haven’t we met before?” I got an immediate Awfully Big Adventure vibe. And when the revelation is finally made about how Dae-su’s tormentor, Lee Woo-jin, is enacting revenge for a teenage Dae-su’s blabbing about young Lee committing incest with his sister—who (of course) then committed suicide from the shame—I knew exactly what the big final revelation was gonna be.

But I’ve enjoyed plenty of films even when I figured out the “big twist” early on.* Unfortunately, I am at a place in my film and TV watching career where I find the “gasp! incest!” play to be just so damn tiresome and pointless. Especially here.

First off, how does it make sense that Lee’s sister was both so ashamed she killed herself, while also saying in flashback right before jumping off the damn bridge, “Don’t be ashamed. I’m not.”

Second, I just don’t get how strongly Dae-su takes on the guilt of taboo. Lee just told him that both Dae-su and Mido were hypnotised and brainwashed to be fixated on each other. Dude, you done been tortured, brainwashed, and manipulated by an adversary with ridiculously limitless resources. Cut yourself a break.

And don’t even get me started on how ridiculous Lee and his limitless resources are. I know I’m not supposed to be looking at Korean shock cinema for verisimilitude, but this shite was beyond the beyond.


* Let me sing you a song of The Sixth Sense.


Image credits: Both photos taken by the author, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

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