Yup, it’s back to revenge fantasies for me: “Oldboy” (2003)

25 August 2012

Hello: perhaps you don’t remember me, as it’s been so long since I last posted. I am the previously-prolific Feminéma who used to blog at length on movies and feminism while also quietly conducting research on leave from teaching. Now I am the cranky Feminéma who’s starting a new semester and dealing with university bureaucracy, and can barely watch a film without falling asleep.

Hence, my return to revenge films. Can you believe I’d never seen Oldboy before?

That’s right! so much for subtlety, literary dialogue, or nuanced character development. Teachers and professors, let me recommend that you soothe your weary tempers by falling into Park Chan-wook’s amazing, twisted, compelling, and occasionally gross-out tale of Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik). Dae-su was kidnapped, brainwashed, and tortured for 15 years only to find himself suddenly and mysteriously released. Filled with fury — not to mention questions about who did this to him and why — he sets off on a crazy, brain-addled quest to avenge his lost years. A female sushi chef joins him in his quest (somewhat inexplicably).

It has the kinetic weirdness of a great Spaghetti Western. If you can stand a few really unwatchable horror scenes (isn’t this why we have hands? to put them in front of our faces?), Oldboy is how to survive the nonsense of the institutions we work for.

What is it about revenge tales, and why is Park so good at telling them? This is the second installment of his Vengeance Trilogy (preceded by Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, and followed by Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, which I quite liked back when I was grading an awful lot of papers a couple of years ago). Is there something to be said here about South Korean culture and politics and the way these brilliant vengeance tales strike a particular chord?

They certainly strike a chord with me. The revenge narrative seems so cathartic because it so often features a protagonist who’s helpless to prevent something bad from happening — so, in response, he/she undertakes a strict regimen of physical and mental training to be ready to exact revenge. That single-minded pursuit, and the clarity of the vengeance motive … oh, I can’t tell you how gratifying it is for those of us who spent an hour on hold waiting for some university administrator.

But it’s not just the actual vengeance; it’s also the ragged edges. The fact that Dae-su is going crazy in his cell as his hair grows longer and frizzier. The fact that exacting revenge is fraught with ambivalence and new revelations about himself and his enemy, revelations that affect his mental clarity.

You see? The vengeance movie shows you that revenge is madness, and perhaps even unsatisfying or soul-destroying. Which is just what I need at the end of a long week, when I looked quite similar to that image of Dae-su, all crazy hair and teeth.

Ordinarily I would have cared more that the female role of Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong, above) is so lackluster, but hey, that would take some feminist ire that I’ve suppressed to get my full intake of vengeance vitamins. Maybe I’ll muster more bile for the Spike Lee remake of the film, reportedly starring Samuel L. Jackson. I promise you, friends, I have not lost the bile; it’s just a question of administering it to the truly deserving.

In the meantime it’s back to lecture-writing and making the longest to-do lists known to humankind. As much as I do love those regular wages, I tell ya: professoring really tests one’s capacity for institutional bullshit.

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3 Responses to “Yup, it’s back to revenge fantasies for me: “Oldboy” (2003)”


  1. I gasp, “How did she know?” Then forward this to spouse, survivor of one very prestigious private college and another HBUC public university that could not quite destroy our liberal bent.

    Your post leaves me glad to now be very old and sad that it’s your turn. Courage!

    • Didion Says:

      The best thing about university jobs is those research leaves. Except that the re-entry process is BRUTAL. It’s all the more inconceivable how much time you spend dealing with crap that has no purpose whatsoever.

      Your comment makes me encouraged to think about retirement from teaching. Also eager to find a way to write a best-selling book that will somehow speed along an early retirement.

  2. Hattie Says:

    There is nothing I like better than a tale of revenge. Seems like Koreans do the best ones. I will definitely watch this movie.


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