Oldboy is the perfect example of the type of film that cannot be done in America, despite its basic revenge flick premise. The twist that makes the tale unique is pretty much forbidden for the mainstream, middle ground-aiming American film industry. Which is pretty hilarious considering an American adaptation of the original manga is in the works. The manga includes none of the taboo elements of the Korean film and completely different characterizations. My suspicion is that the American producers want all of the popularity and notoriety of the Korean film without putting in any of what made it anything other than a generic action film.
Sadly, the American adaptation will probably make a lot of money anyway. Mindless action films sell, the American culture has a history of loving revenge stories, and a fair amount of clout has been building up about the name Oldboy without anyone knowing anything except that they have to see it. The confusion about which one they need to see will be a boon to the new film’s theatrical release.
At this point I shouldn’t have to say this, but there are spoilers here.
Incest! This is a revenge story revolving around and including incest. There, I said it.
Oh Daesu, the protagonist, is kidnapped at the beginning of the movie and subsequently released by antagonistic Woo-Jin after 15 years. When Oh confronts Woo-Jin about the kidnapping, Woo-Jin challenges him with additional questions. The one that lingers the most is Why?
Both characters attended the same school for a while, the Oldboy Academy. It was there that Oh Daesu accidentally peered in on Woo-Jin being intimate with his own sister. Oh briefly remarked about the incident to his best friend before leaving to study abroad, thinking little else about it. The rumor spread and indirectly led to the suicide of Woo-Jin’s sister. Being from a wealthy family left the surviving lover many resources for revenge.
The revenge wasn’t a mere kidnapping. For 15 years Oh was locked in a room with only potstickers and television to occupy his time. And regular hypnotic treatments every morning after being gassed so he wouldn’t remember it. Concurrently, Woo-Jin raised Oh’s young daughter, complete with her own set of hypnotic treatments. His revenge would only be complete if he could manipulate the two into coming together.
The end of the film leaves our protagonist in pieces after discovering that the woman he has come to love is his own daughter, all grown up. Even after his own hypnotic treatment to forever forget the truth, the viewer knows. Subsequent viewings of the film ensure the viewer never forgets, possibly becoming more disturbed after each viewing. Which means the movie is absolutely brilliant in my eyes.
And at the same time I don’t know how to feel about it. Aside from the incest plots, it was a fairly standard revenge movie with a few cool fight scenes. (The hallway battle in particular is pretty awesome, and it will probably be a major subject of comparison when the American adaptation is released.) Beyond that, what is there? Does there need to be anything else? Does a movie that takes such a huge chance in subject matter really have to be more than adequate otherwise?
I’d say Yes, but this is a certainly a good start.