Superhero comics are filled with revenge. Revenge for traumatic childhoods. Revenge for past transgressions. Revenge for schemes gone wrong, for backstabbing, for constant attempted murder. But few, if any, superhero stories depict revenge as well as Oldboy, Park Chan-wook's masterful adaptation of the titular manga which sits at the center of his "vengeance trilogy" and stands as one of the darkest, most haunting explorations of man's desire for payback in the history of film.
Oldboy's potency comes from the way it establishes Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) as a figure who isn't motivated by revenge but consumed by it; that's at first understandable, since he's been locked away for fifteen years with little else to sustain him but the notion that he will one day get vengeance on whoever confined him. Most people in such a situation would be similarly thirsty for vengeance and the story easily could have been structured as your typical "man hunts down all who wronged him" story, with the requisite action pieces and snappy one liners. But instead, Park Chan-wook depicts the emotional and physical toll hatred can take on a person and how the blindness that results can radically alter one's perception of the past.
Park Chan-wook succeeds because he is unafraid to show the ugliness of Oh Dae-su and the despicable actions that aren't so easily excused as mere payback, ultimately resulting in a macabre collision of parallel revenge plots as Oh Dae-su's tormentor reveals his own revenge plans. In the world of superheroes, revenge typically falls along black and white lines, with right and wrong reasons for vengeance unfolding as needed for the story. But in Oldboy, as in life, revenge is much more complicated, with no clear solution and end results that aren't anywhere near satisfactory for anyone. Oldboy's final twists show the truth of that old adage that when you set out for revenge, you should first dig two graves, but in this particular case, only one of those graves is for a person while the other is for an entire past, one that has been killed in favor of a fresh status quo that hides the ugliest of truths. It's devastating and sickening and nothing could be more fitting.
by Nick Hanover