This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
DonKasper’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
How revenge is used in 'Oldboy'
‘Oldboy’ is a Korean film with the intention of confusing you before you are surprised by the giant, patient revenge twist the antagonist, Woo-jin Lee, performs on our protagonist, Dae-su Ho. The film is a fantastic revenge story with more twists than your right hand. I'm no expert when it comes to Korean cinema, the 'genre' is considered by the critical film circles to be one of the most creative in the world. And with my little knowledge, I agree, and especially 'Oldboy'. ‘Oldboy’ is directed and written by Chan-wook Park who is also known for the film ‘The Handmaiden’. The film is inspired by a manga with the same name, but many believe that the products are very different (and I have not read the manga).
‘Oldboy’ has a cruel start when Dae-su Ho is put in a small apartment without knowing why he is there, who put him there or when he can leave. Dae lives in the apartment with a small table next to a TV which is his only way to the outside world.A sofa in front of the TV and a small toilet at the end of the room. He gets food once a day through an open hatch at the bottom of the door. And no matter how much Dae screams and shouts when the hatch is open, no one comes to help him. He is also unknowingly drugged in the apartment, and the climax in the first act comes when Dae begins to hallucinate ants crawling out of his body. He begins to train during his stay for two reasons: to find and kill the person who locked him in, and to stay somewhat sane in there; his mind becomes clearer and better in the long run. The person who put him in is Woo-jin Lee. A rich businessman with a personal vendetta against Dae, but Dae nor we know why Dae ended up in the apartment. In the apartment, the film builds the character Dae and sets the cruel tone for the film, and when he suddenly wakes up on top of a skyscraper, Dae wants revenge on Woo for his 15 years in the apartment.
Revenge. The theme of the film is revenge. An overlooked feeling. Everyone has wanted to take revenge multiple times throughout their own history and lives. Director Chan is very aware of this fact when he said on the DVD commentary on 'Oldboy': "To be honest, I do not understand why other film directors do not make revenge stories, it is so dramatic and attractive." Chan loves revenge, this movie is movie number 2 in a revenge trilogy written and directed by him (not chronologically). I think Chan's statement is not entirely true but I also think he means this too: many films have revenge as a theme, more simply as a sub-theme. In Chad Stahelski's 'John Wick', revenge is a sub-theme, but at its most basic, a tale of grief.John is a widower mourning the loss of his wife Helen where her death feels like punishment for the sins of his past, because before he met Helen John worked in a type of insanely organized mafia. She arranged to give John a dog just before she died. Not long after his wife's death, he meets Russian gangsters and they kill his dog. John's last memory of his wife is gone. When that happens he decides to find the gangsters and kill them; revenge. Grief is the main theme and revenge is the action as a sub-theme. The difference from such films and ‘Oldboy’ is that we do not know during most of the film why Dae ended up in the apartment for 15 years. We know there's a reason, but what did he do? What kind of cruelty did he do to deserve this? We want the antagonist to take revenge and find out whatever the fuck is going on. Everything builds up to why. But in ‘John Wick’ we know why he takes revenge throughout the film so revenge as a theme is pushed aside. Everything is in the structure. We know why and follow the avenger in ‘John Wick’, but in ‘Oldboy’ the protagonist is not the avenger, we think he is, and neither we nor the protagonist have any idea why or what Dae did to deserve 15 years in a little apartment for a long time.
This was how the revenge motif came about because ‘Oldboy’ is a tale of revenge, but not for the character you first assume. The film shows that Woo was a social guy before he ended up in the apartment. This leads us to believe that it could be anyone, and we can not wait to see Dae take revenge. But. The twist reveals that Dae has been tricked throughout the film by Woo because Dae gossiped about Woo's incestuous relationship with his sister when they were teenagers. Woo's sister killed herself a while later, and Woo blames Dae for suicide; Dae killed her. The film is set upside down. Throughout the film, we have seen Dae struggle. Whether it was in the apartment or when he was released. He's been struggling to find the person who locked him up for 15 years and when he and we think he's finally getting his revenge, it turns out that everything was part of Woo's plan. Woo is the avenger while Dae is the target. Not unlike 'John Wick'.
Another way we see how the revenge of Woo is played out is by the colors red and green. Green when Dae needs something; when he has a plan. Red when the plans turns out not to be a set up by Woo. Throughout the film, this color sequence performs masterfully using furniture, walls, lights etc; the production design. Green is the structure of Woo's deceptions and fantasies. Red is the play of the trick. An example of this is the suicide button Woo has. If one presses the button then Woo's heart will explode, according to Woo, but during the film he also uses his suicide button as a green laser. After all the secrets revealed in the climax scene, Dae finally manages to get his hands on the button. Dae presses the button and the laser is red, suddenly Dae hears footage of him and his daughter, Mi-do having sex. Dae bought another of Woo's deceptions. This happens throughout the film. When Dae walks around the city after his release, the production design is green, and when he finally ends up in the restaurant where he unconsciously meets his daughter, Mi-do, it's mostly red. The same is true when Dae first meets Woo in some apartment after Woo called Dae, and the following ‘Dae almost lost his teeth’ scene before Dae and his daughter, Mi-do, have the sex. In the Woo scene, it's green, but when Dae comes to Mi-do, everything's red.
‘Oldboy’ proves that one can make a film with the main theme of revenge, and make a masterpiece out of it. Chan's artistic expression as the structure of the film; we think we follow the avenger, and the subtle effect of the production colors green and red explains how revenge is shown throughout the film without revealing the film's big twist which is that Woo is the avenger, and Dae is not. Green sets up Dae's actions constructed by Woo, and red is the payment Dae unconsciously got himself into.