Cinemassholes #7: Lee Woo-Jin


19th August 2005

In all the annals of cinema, I can think of no single character that so perfectly embodies the term 'asshole' as does Lee Woo-Jin (Yu Ji-Tae), the main antagonist of director Park Chan-Wook's simmering and wholly disturbing revenge thriller, Oldboy. Lee Woo-Jin takes being an asshole to heights previously undreamt of. If being an asshole was a form of art, then Lee Woo-Jin would be revered along with other master artists like Van Gogh, Mozart, Kurosawa, Dostoyevsky and Byron. Think of the biggest asshole you've ever encountered in your life, and I'll bet you even money that if they were to ever encounter Lee Woo-Jin, they could do nothing more than merely shake their head and mutter to themselves, "What an asshole that guy is." Seriously, the guy is a jerk.

Why is he such a jerk, you may ask? Well, let me break it down for you (spoilers be here). See, Lee Woo-Jin really loves his sister, Lee Soo-Ah (Jin Seo-Yun) and she loves him in return. And when I say that they love one another, what I mean to say is that he likes to slowly pull her panties off, take off her bra, and then run his tongue all over her tiny little titties while sliding his hand up between her thighs, and she indulges him. Hey, at least they're not bickering over who gets control of the remote like most siblings. One day, the pair is engaged in a little bout of lovin' in one of the abandoned classroom at their somewhat budget-deficient high school, when Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-Sik) happens to catch them in the act. Needless to say, he immediately goes out and tells two friends, and then they tell two friends, and so on and so on (this apparently happens quite often in Asia, if old television commercials are any indicator). Within no time, the rumor mill has begun to spin out of control, and Soo-Ah, finding it hard to live with the humiliation, decides to throw herself off a bridge instead, leaving Woo-Jin a distraught and bitter shell of his former self.

So what does Woo-Jin do? Why, he does what any incestuous, self-righteous asshole worth his salt would do. He spends the next 20 years becoming the president of a huge multi-national corporation, amassing a vast personal fortune. Woo-Jin then uses his wealth to hire a shadowy criminal organization to kidnap Oh Dae-Su on the day of his daughter's third birthday, imprisoning him in a hotel room for the next 15 years, keeping him alive against his will, all the while keeping his own identity a secret. After the tortuous 15 years are up and Dae-Su is finally set free, Woo-Jin contacts him covertly and gives Dae-Su a mere five days to find out who was behind it all or he will kill any woman who so much as dares to get close to him. As if that weren't bad enough, along the way Woo-Jin tricks Dae-Su into falling in love with his own daughter, without him knowing her real identity - watching a repeat viewing and witnessing a guy pork his own flesh and blood, Woo-Jin's deviousness really begins to come alive. Man, some people hold a grudge and then some people hold a grudge.

But it doesn't stop there. It is also worth noting that Woo-Jin also kills Dae-Su's best friend, No Joo-Hwan, just because the guy was trying to help Dae-su uncover the truth (besides, nobody likes those fat guys at internet cafes). To top it all off, by the end of the film Woo-Jin has managed to drive Dae-su so far beyond the point of madness that the poor fella is willing to run around on all fours and bark like a dog, before cutting out his own tongue with a pair of blunt scissors - ouch. All of this torture, all of this pain, all of this emotional devastation, just because Dae-Su happened to catch Lee diddling his own sister. Popping a cap in Dae-Su's skull simply isn't enough (he's presented with several opportunities to kill him but never even considers it) - Woo-Jin is out to make Dae-Su suffer, and in the most painful, ironic way possible.

Lee Woo-Jin manages to perfectly straddle the line between plain old garden-variety asshole and over-the-top comic book super-villain. There is a sense of lingering sadness that lurks just beneath the surface of his handsome, pretty-boy features, but it is mixed with a sense of cold menace. All one has to do is look into the guy's eyes to see that he feels his actions are both righteous and totally justified. Even more frightening, though; he is totally and utterly relishing the anguish and torment that he has visited upon Oh Dae-Su. That, my friends, is the mark of a true asshole, whether he stuck it to his sister or not.

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