July 7, 2012 by bluberie
Ayush Prasad finds a decisive case against putting names to relationships in Park Chanwook’s Old Boy.
Once upon a time, there was a boy and a girl. As children, they whispered to each other. Their whispers spoke of things that they liked about each other, things like their smiles, twitches, smells and skins.
One day, their whispers stopped. They were washed over by a more robust, a more direct, resonance, which caused their bodies to throb. It was uncanny. It confused, yet pushed them towards each-other. It impounded their minds and shoved them into a maze from where there was no leeway. It told them that their dreams needed to be freed from the most primal chains that gave them their very identities.
So what if they had the same mother and father, they wanted to know the taste of each other’s spit. They wanted it to themselves, for themselves, for each other. And then, hardly had they trudged along this forbidden path, than one of the many eyes of the all-pervading society peeped through a pin hole and saw their errant design. Somehow, it had always been curious about them. It didn’t want to let go off them. It wanted to possess them and keep them locked in chains that it had desired and forged. And it would be successful in its ambitions, crushing the two bodies, their two minds, killing their love because it flowered between a brother and a sister.
But that won’t be all. Something would follow, something that’s even more heinous and dangerous, even perversely demented. Broken desires and a love lost would trigger it off, making the perpetrator—that particular eye that interfered, pervaded and destroyed—a prisoner of its deeds. Where love could not live, revenge would mushroom. Revenge would burst into a fifteen year old, dark, red bloom of flowing blood and crusted pain, leaving an indelible stain on the pupils of the eye that saw and did as it pleased.
This is the substratum of Park Chan-wook’s ultra-radical Oldboy. The film lands us in the disturbing, nerve-wracking world of Woo-jin’s (played by Ji-tae Yu) chilling vengeance against Dae-su (played by Min-sik Choi) for having slandered, shamed and caused the death of his sister and paramour, Lee Soo-ah (played by Jin-seo Yun).
Oldboy moves away from the clichéd popular formula of a hero avenging the death of his beloved by killing the villain. Instead, it talks about the breakdown of souls and the brewing of irreparable tragedies that take place when those who are in precarious social positions and relationships become the victims of slander and opinionated public censure. Oldboy is about individuals being overcome by powers greater than themselves and about the devastation such upheavals unleash in their lives.
Built around Dae-su’s imprisonment for fifteen years and his subsequent search for the man who had imprisoned him, Oldboy prods the audience’s mind with really significant questions about love, and its control and containment within and by society.
How can love be prevented? Why should love be prevented? How can love be wrong when the people who are in love want it? Do a brother and a sister not have the right to love each other passionately under any circumstance? If a father and a daughter fall in love, do they need to erase the memory of their socialised relationship in order to love freely? Are brothers and sisters, fathers and daughters, mothers and sons not always aware of the shapes, movements and changes in each other’s bodies? Are they not aware that possibilities of passion exist endlessly between their bodies? Do they not desire to feel the sweat trickling off these other forbidden skins on their own?
Split within the world of the film as both a narrative voice and the ‘hero’, Dae-su (repeating after the suicidal man he tries to prevent jumping off a skyscraper) asks, “Even though I’m no worst than a beast, don’t I have the right to live?” The rhetorical reply, “Yes,” makes it clear that survival is an ideal basic right. The younger Dae-su, by spreading canards about Lee Su-ah’s pregnancy and compelling her to commit suicide, takes this basic right to survive away from her. The older Dae-su would later pay a price for it by living locked up in a room for fifteen years. An unexpected release would follow the imprisonment and leave a middle aged Dae-su haunted by questions of who it was that imprisoned him and why he was imprisoned. Then he would fall in love with his own daughter who has been alienated from him those fifteen years and fornicate with her. Realising the oedipal act (and feeling and reading it as a punishable sin and crime) at the end of the story, he would do penance by licking the boots of the damaged and demented Woo-jin, becoming Woo-jin’s tail-wagging dog, and finally cut his own tongue off so that he’s rendered incapable of either speaking about his own oedipal experience or slandering ever again against someone else who is in an incestuous relationship. And all of this would be orchestrated by the shrewd and masterful Woo-jin with the help of some potent hypnosis and a crystal clear plan of making Dae-su give in to incest unknowingly.
A perfect thriller Oldboy is then. And its thrill element is heightened by its music. As Dae-su holds on to the neck-tie of an anonymous suicidal man at the beginning of the film, an adventurous blood-pumping track floods in and sets the pace. The scene which has Woo-jin pummelling and choking Joo-whan to death plays out against a warm symphony as its background score. We cannot but feel Woo-jin’s emotions crawl beneath our skin just like the ants that Dae-su feels crawls under his. The scene of incest between Woo-jin and Lee Soo-ah is held intact by another symphony that is mellow, tragic, and yet joyful. It aptly complements Lee Soo-ah’s smiles and pleasures as she looks into a hand-held mirror, amazed, inquisitive, and watches her brother fondle her breasts. A melody on the violin laces the scene of violent and unbridled passion between Dae-su and his daughter Mi-do, providing the scene with a fragile and disturbing beauty. When Dae-su, searching for the mystery of the numbers six and four, goes on pressing buttons in a lift, the track changes and starts pulsating, finally becoming an electronic score that’s extremely tense. An even more tense piece on the violin plays as Dae-su follows his fleeting younger self and discovers afresh the past and the role he had played in it, establishing the surreal scene in a harmonious and chilling decree: the older Dae-su literally tailing his earlier younger self to be led to the mystery of his imprisonment, the incest, and how he had destroyed two people and spoilt their hopes of happiness and fulfillment.
Oldboy also practices fast-paced juxtaposition of scenes from different times, past and present, to allow the story to drift between time frames, often with stark effect. During the time of Dae-su’s imprisonment, one half of the screen shows the imprisoned Dae-su turning madder day by day, while the other half displays footages of incessant historical progress of the world outside. Dae-su is only a medium. Don’t we all stay trapped within our personal times even as the world of power and society moves on, unconcerned, unconnected?
The title track of the film, with both the violin and the clock ticking away, attests to the mystery of time in motion. The violinist, Misseur Time, moves on and leaves imprints of its symphonies on its audiences’ ear-drums. It is in the unceasing concert of this violinist that we choose to love, to hate, to interfere in others’ businesses whether for the good, the bad or the ugly. It is in the spectral lyricism of moments of this poet who cannot be emulated that we are remitted for our actions.
Dae-su and Woo-jin, Mi-do and Lee Soo-ah, are characters in a film that is primarily about how people afflicted and inflicted by identities bear their relation to time more than to anything or anyone else. At all times, they struggle against what time deigns to let them have. That’s why Woo-jin kills himself even though he has had his revenge. That’s why Dae-su goes to a hypnotist and gets rid of his memory of the past. That’s why Mi-do embraces Dae-su and accepts him even though he is without a tongue and without any speech, a cripple. And that’s why Lee Soo-ah asks her brother to let her go into the inviting arms of the gushing gorge. They all find their times unbearable, and eventually escape it in their own ways: something which all of us experience in our day-to-day realities as they lie riddled with restrictions called identities and with immovable relationships locked firmly in their places.
PS: Published in Insignia, the UTV World Movies monthly, in 2010, for Spenta Multimedia, Mumbai