Will a Good Movie Get Blamed?

Before the South Korean filmmaker Chan-wook Park gets tarred by the benighted media as the Marilyn Manson of the Virginia Tech killing spree—i.e., as the pop-culture “villain” whose gory imagination inspired a murderer—let me say this right off the bat about his 2003 movie “Oldboy”: it’s a spectacular film. It is certainly not for all tastes, and reasonable minds can differ about the movie’s cinematic merits. But the jurors at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival must’ve seen some merit in it—they gave “Oldboy” the prestigious festival’s Grand Prize. The film also won a raft of Hong Kong and Korean cinema honors. It was a giant hit in Park’s native South Korea, as well as a cult favorite among U.S. film buffs (including me) during its brief theatrical run here in 2004. Now, the audience for “Oldboy” is about to grow exponentially, but not for reasons that anyone involved with it, especially Park, would be proud of.

“Oldboy,” featuring Korean superstar actor Min-sik Choi, is an outrageous revenge story about a businessman named Dae-su Oh who gets kidnapped away from his wife and infant daughter by an unknown assailant and is barricaded in a small room for 15 years. When he’s finally turned loose, Dae-su Oh sets off on a surreal journey to find out who imprisoned him and why. But during his quest for revenge, he slowly realizes that his tormenter might not be done with him yet and that the worst is still to come. “Oldboy” is the middle chapter of Park’s “Vengeance Trilogy” of films, arriving in between “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” (2002) and the series capstone “Lady Vengeance” (2005). “Oldboy,” the most critically hailed of the trio, is luridly violent, morbidly funny and startlingly original, with a complex, twisting mystery that floors its viewers with surprise after surprise. I saw it three years ago, but I can remember walking out of the theater, buzzing from the experience, like it was yesterday.

Unfortunately, the film may have had another devoted fan: Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech gunman responsible for 32 deaths earlier this week. To date, no one has turned up any direct evidence that Cho was familiar with “Oldboy.” But judging from the photographs that Cho took of himself and mailed to NBC, the connection is difficult to ignore. The ubiquitous self-portrait of Cho, with his arms outstretched and a pistol in each hand, is a pose that seems borrowed directly from the hero in “Oldboy,” as is another photo of Cho wielding a hammer. The photograph with the hammer could be a reference to one of “Oldboy’s” most provocative and celebrated sequences, in which Dae-su Oh uses a hammer to fight off about 20 henchmen in a darkened hallway. The sequence is filmed as a clear homage to video-game imagery: as Dae-su Oh smashes his way through bad guy after bad guy, the screen scrolls gradually from left to right, with the hero fixed in the middle, in the style of a video-game character progressing through a level of play. It’s a sly commentary on the surreality of movie violence—but viewed from another, more alarmist, perspective, one could just as easily bash it for glorifying bloodshed.

(On Thursday afternoon, Tartan Films, the company that handled the film’s U.S. theatrical run, released a statement to NEWSWEEK about the connection between “Oldboy” and the events at Virginia Tech, in which the company expressed its condolences to the victims and tried to downplay the link without overtly denying it. “We are extremely proud of Chan-wook Park’s movie 'Oldboy' and the critical praise it has received. To be associated in any way with the tragic events that occurred at Virginia Tech is extremely disturbing and depressing. It is clear from news reports that the individual who perpetrated this heinous crime was deeply troubled. We believe that anyone would find it hard to explain his motives or actions. Our deepest thoughts and prayers are with all the families affected by this terrible tragedy.”)

For some journalists, Cho’s photographs are the clincher in a series of details linking him to “Oldboy.” Cho was a young South Korean emigré who was fond of penning his own violent movie scripts, so it seems logical that he’d be familiar with the work of Chan-wook Park. But “Oldboy,” as well as Park’s other “Vengeance” films, also had thematic parallels to Cho’s life and his creative writing. The theme of revenge is an obvious overlap, but Park’s films also included plotlines about childhood sexual abuse and molestation, a theme that is repeated in some of Cho’s amateur writing efforts. Ultimately, though, “Oldboy” is about the folly and futility of vengeance, not its powers of catharsis.

In the aftermath of such brutal slayings, it has become almost de rigueur for journalists to scour the movies, music and video games favored by the killer for hints about what set him off. Because of the Virginia Tech case, “Oldboy” seems destined for this brand of infamy. Which is unfortunate, because the film is a peerless work of creativity by a gifted artist—not a bloody call to arms. It’s inevitable that people touched by this tragedy will look to films like “Oldboy” in search of answers. But even if the film did indeed help shape Cho’s methods, no one should hold it responsible for his madness. Cho Seung-Hui was a damaged soul who may have found in “Oldboy” a film that spoke to him. But it appears that he was far too lost to understand what it actually had to say.