The Summer of Spook
An old Klingon proverb says “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” In Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, released in 2003, Oh Dae-su (played by Choi Min-sik), a man who has been imprisoned for fifteen years by an unknown person, goes to a sushi restaurant and asks to eat something alive. He has a conversation with the chef, Mi-do (played by Kang Hye-jung), about how the best sushi is made with cold hands. He then proceeds to shove a live squid in his mouth and bites the head off. Its tentacles wrap around his face, but he ignores this and keeps eating. Oh Dae-su’s imprisonment has changed him; he goes from being a man who talks too much to someone cold and seeking violence. He wants to be served something cold and alive.
I Saw the Devil, released in 2010 and directed by Kim Jee-woon, explores revenge similarly, although it engages with the horror genre much more directly. After losing his fiancee to a demented serial killer, Jang Kyung-chul (played by Choi Min-sik), Special Agent Kim Soo-hyun (played by Lee Byung-hun) begins routinely torturing the serial killer to get his revenge. As he executes this process the characters and the audience start wondering if Kim Soo-hyun is losing his soul and becoming a monster. Both Oldboy and I Saw the Devil feature the antagonist calling the protagonist a monster, or mention how they created a monster. This concept of monster creation has been present in horror fiction since the beginning. Books like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein deal with the literal creation of a monster; whereas, Oldboy and I Saw the Devil use the monster creation as a metaphor.
Neither one of these movies is for the faint of heart, and both feature traumatic endings (which I will not spoil here. Seriously, watch these movies). They deal with the subject of revenge in a dark and nuanced way. How much would someone be willing to lose for revenge? Both films explore the cyclical cycle of revenge and violence and how once someone starts getting vengeance, everything resets, and bloodlust and revenge reemerge. Western movies–I talking regionally not the genre–such as Death Wish, released in 1974 and remade in 2018, along with its subsequent sequels, and John Wick use the revenge narrative as a vehicle for an action film. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. John Wick is one of my all-time favorite action films, but what I Saw the Devil and Oldboy offer is much more poignant and shows just how much is sacrificed in the name of revenge. Also, even though Oldboy and I Saw the Devil use the revenge narrative in a much more visceral and intense way they are still very satisfying action movies with Oldboy featuring one of the most well executed fight scenes of all-time.
Both I Saw the Devil and Oldboy also bridge the horror genre, which is why I’m looking at them under The Summer of Spook banner. I Saw the Devil engages with the horror genre in a much more direct way, some moments reminded me of films like Silence of the Lambs, and I should add that Choi Min-sik gives a performance in I Saw the Devil that is equal to the intensity and power of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter. I classify Oldboy as bridging the horror genre only because some revelations and moments are horrific to watch; the film is much more in line with the thriller or neo-noir genre. These are two excellent films that explore the theme of revenge intensely and profoundly, making the audience question the morality of vengeance and violence.
Both Movies Receive 5/5