The Movie that Motivated Cho?

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Ji-tae Yu in Oldboy

We heard it after Columbine: that the two kids had been warped by seeing The Matrix. The Paducah killings were supposed to have been triggered by The Basketball Diaries. Another movie is now raising questions in the Virginia Tech massacre — because the killer, Cho Seung-Hui, made a photo in which he looks fierce and holds a raised hammer, in a manner similar to a shot in Park Chan-Wook's 2003 film Oldboy. Both Cho and the film are originally from South Korea. Both have undergone Americanization: Cho by moving to the U.S. when he was a kid, Oldboy by getting remade as a Hollywood movie that, last I heard, was to come out next year.

There are loads of violent moments in Old Boy (which was very loosely based on a Japanese manga), and even more in the first and third films in Park's so-called Vengeance trilogy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. But movie violence, as anyone who's seen Saw and its quillion imitators, is not unique to Asia. And if you want to argue that this violent film provoked this disturbed young man to commit this atrocity, you should be prepared to explain why all those who saw Oldboy, and The Matrix, and Saw, didn't so the same. 404 Not Found

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I first caught Oldboy at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, where it was awarded the Grand Prix du Jury, or second prize. (Only Michael Moore's anti-Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 finished higher, copping the Palme d'Or.) The Jury that year was headed by Quentin Tarantino, and at the closing night ceremony, when Tarantino read out the Old Boy award, he proclaimed that his panel was "delighted" with its choice.

One Cannes regular described Oldboy as a Tarantino movie that Tarantino would be afraid to make. It surely has its quota of Quentinian quirks, including cool bad guys dressed in black, a revenge motif that won't quit, some acts of abuse that would have given de Sade appreciative shivers — and, most important, an expert's joy in expanding and subverting the rules of the genre.

The story line is also plenty gnarled, in a fashion familiar to admirers of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill. It begins in 1988, when the main character, Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-Sik, star of the Korean blockbusters Shiri and Failan), is kidnapped and confined without being told what his crime is or how long he will be held. The movie snakes forward to 2003, when Oh is suddenly released, but still not free; his unknown torturer now plays with him in subtler, more damaging ways. And it ends in 1979, when Oh and his assailant were schoolboys, for the revelation of many guilty secrets.

That's where Oldboy and the Tarantino oeuvre part company. The Korean movie proposes that guilt, not vengeance, can be the spur to a man's darkest deeds. The film's big set pieces — the devouring of a live octopus, a tongue removal without benefit of anesthetic, even a bout of lovemaking — are essentially acts of self-mutilation, in a world where Original Sin blots out the sunlight of redemption. Oh essentially takes the major blame for all the awful things that have happened to him. And when he finally faces his captor, he goes medieval on himself: ripping out his tongue, begging for the villain's mercy and licking his shoes.

To me, that seems much more an Asian precept than a Hollywood one. (Which suggests that the U.S. remake Universal Pictures was planning is due for a vigorous rewrite.) It's also worlds removed from what happened in Blacksburg. That was closer to a standard American revenge scenario, where the hero takes violent action against those he thinks wronged him. (Death Wish, anyone?) And don't forget that the weapon of choice in Oldboy was a hammer, which no one planning a mass murder would pack in his arsenal.

If you're looking for the villain behind Cho's sadistic spree, consider what it has in common with every multiple-murder tragedy in recent U.S. history: the young man had easy access to a few of the 200 million guns available in this country, and used them to slaughter people who never did him harm.