What Cho Seung-Hui got wrong about Oldboy.
It's taken professional pundits several days to link the Virginia Tech shootings to a violent piece of pop culture—frankly, I think they're slipping. A photo of Cho Seung-Hui wielding a hammer—included in the package that Cho mailed to NBC News—mimics a scene from the Korean movie Oldboy. Over on her blog, showbiz reporter Nikki Finke demonstrates the standard-issue rending of garments and crying to the heavens that comes when a violent movie seems to inspire a horrific act: "I just don't understand how critics with even a shred of humanity keep supporting films that celebrate violence in all its awfulness."
Oldboy, the 2004 Cannes Grand Prix winner,is hardly a celebration of violence, although it does depict bloodshed with all the graphic panache of 300. It's the second film in Park Chan-Wook's unofficial "Vengeance Trilogy," which started with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and ended with Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005). Despite being a trilogy, the three movies have nothing in common beyond their determination to map humanity's self-destructive drive for revenge.
In the stark Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the camera watches in silent horror as two relatively nice people do absolutely awful things to each other for what they believe to be very good reasons. The movie was a critical hit but a commercial flop, and it's easy to see why. Although much of the world seems to operate on the "he did it to me first" principle of revenge, watching a movie in which the well of human sympathy has run completely dry is just too bleak.
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is the least popular of the three movies and has the fewest critical defenders. The plot centers on a woman who takes the rap for a crime her boyfriend committed, then strides off in search of revenge upon her release. The most spiritual of the three movies, marinated in kitsch Christian iconography, it's also the most hopeful. Whereas Mr. Vengeance offered no solution for the cycle of revenge, Lady Vengeance at least holds out the possibility of forgiveness.
Oldboy is actually the least interesting movie in the trilogy. Based loosely on The Count of Monte Cristo and inspired by Japanese manga, Oldboy gets so tangled up in visually ravishing set pieces that it keeps tripping on its own stylishness. The premise: A middle-aged salaryman is imprisoned in a hotel room for 15 years and then unceremoniously released, with no idea as to why he was abducted or who abducted him. The only thought in his mind is—you guessed it—revenge. In the film's most famous scene (and the one Cho invoked photographically), he takes on a hall crammed with henchmen armed with nothing more than a hammer. Technically, it's thrilling: a 2 minute, 45 second uninterrupted tracking shot of a fight that starts out ruthless and brawling and becomes little more than silly slapsies by the end as exhaustion takes its toll on the actors. While some could view it as an exciting action sequence, I've never seen an audience that isn't giggling by the end as the exhausted fighters trip over their own feet, fall on their butts with fatigue, and muster up all the menace of a sleepy kitten.
By the time Oldboy is over there will be incest, impromptu dentistry, the ingestion of a live octopus, and someone will cut out their own tongue. But when our salaryman finally confronts his jailor he discovers that his life wasn't destroyed because of some political scheme, as in The Count of Monte Cristo, but as revenge for a petty high-school slight that he barely remembers. It's a movie that whips up a froth of Grand Guignol in order to show that all the violence signifies nothing. The audience is left empty: All the fighting, all the melodrama, and all the histrionics were over an adolescent grudge? It's as if Rocky Balboa was motivated by the desire to win a pack of gum. What seemed cool at the start of the movie feels pathetic and futile by the end.
The "Vengeance Trilogy" is difficult, painful to watch, and obsessed with depicting revenge as the ultimate act of narcissism—a way to wallow in your problems and proclaim "Oh, poor me" with a hammer. But it's easy to get lost in the surfaces of a movie as technically thrilling as Oldboy and ignore that it urges the audience to question the thrills it offers. Park Chan-Wook sends up genre conventions to point out that we intrinsically like violence—how it looks, the risk it carries, the satisfaction of seeing a dispute resolved by a swift poke in the nose—but that the consequences make us uncomfortable. Still, it's probably the film's endlessly consumable mix of technical pizzazz and heavy-duty violence that have made it an instant cult classic; many critics and viewers love Oldboy for the rush of images rather than the ideas hiding in the shadows.
In the end, Oldboy bears no more responsibility for the Virginia Tech shootings than American Idol, but it's fortunate that it has come up. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter a few years ago, Oldboy's director Park said, "My films are the stories of people who place the blame for their actions on others because they refuse to take on the blame themselves." And that's one of the smartest things that anyone's said so far about the motives of Cho Seung-Hui.
Grady Hendrix is one of the founders of the New York Asian Film Festival and he writes about pop culture on his blog.