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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Mr. Vengeance

“[Y]ou can check off the predictable ‘the shooter was obsessed by some movie or some video game’, too. According to some, Oldboy seems to be the connection that was previously missing. You knew it was just a matter of time.”

Indeed. Even before I got the above email from my good friend—in fact, literally a mere two hours after I posted last week’s missive—I had heard a BBC radio reporter say something to the effect that the murderer of 32 Virginia Tech students had been a fan of Korean director Chan-wook Park’s Vengeance Trilogy. Oldboy, a violent tale of vengeance, is the second movie in the Vengeance Trilogy, which also includes the films Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance. Anyone see a trend running through these movies? Probably not forgiveness anyway.

So right on cue the media fairly promptly put it out there that there was a potential cinematically induced motivation for the campus slaughter. But exactly how do we know about this connection? After an exhaustive five-minute Google session, I managed to trace it to a New York Times blog by Mike Nizza, quickly followed by an Associated Press report, which said that a Virginia Tech professor named Paul Harris “alerted authorities” that one of 43 photos, sent by the killer in a parcel to NBC on the day of the shootings, which showed the butcher of Blacksburg posing with a hammer in his hand, was “similar” to an image used on promotional posters for Oldboy. The AP piece went on to detail other connections between notorious killers and music or movies. These included trench coats worn by the Columbine killers (supposedly resembling those worn in the Matrix movies); the effect of lyrics by rapper Tupac Skakur on the teen who killed four in Jonesboro, Arkansas; and Charles Manson’s captivation with the Beatles song “Helter Skelter.” AP then rounded out the story with a quote by an author of a book about how mayhem is caused by people copycatting popular culture, saying that the VT killer was copycatting popular culture, and a quote by a filmmaker dismissing the connection.

This spawned debates on other blogs and web sites, with most people (from what I could see anyway) arguing that it was silly to “blame” a movie for an individual’s actions. The odd thing to me is, from what I have read so far anyway, no one has actually offered any evidence that the killer had even seen Oldboy, let alone what he might have thought about it. (I can’t help but wonder whether the professor and the media would have arrived at this connection if the murderer—who had lived in the U.S. since age 8—had been born in, say, Maryland instead of Korea.) Yet, it is all but inevitable (even if we never learn definitively if the gunman actually saw any of Park’s movies) that AP articles in the aftermath of future tragedies will have added the butcher of Blacksburg’s imagined link with Oldboy to its standard list of connections between notorious killers and music or movies. It seems fairly clear to me that, in many if not most, of these cases it is the media and the public that have instigated these connections—not necessarily the killers themselves. Society’s need for narratives seem to require that compelling and painful events, like the one in Virginia, have a theme song and a movie tie-in—in addition to a distinctive logo and graphic to open and close each segment of cable news coverage.

Some bloggers thought that the media focus on the movie angle was a way of justifying or excusing the murderer’s actions. I don’t think anyone would seriously argue that a movie was the problem here and not mental illness (or, as some people would call it in this situation, evil). Instead, I think the media and the news consuming public latch on to such a connection as a way of trying to make sense of senseless, of trying to explain things. That’s understandable but, at the end of the day, it is kind of a pointless exercise. And to the extent that it encourages limits on artistic creativity, potentially harmful. Ironically, all the speculation and discussion may even be playing into the ultimate desires of the murderer. After all, they are serving to propagate both his name and his likeness on countless printed pages as well as across the internet. (Which is why I am refraining from including either on my web site.)

But now that I have suggested that the connection between the VT slaughter and the movie Oldboy is tenuous to non-existent, let me say that it is worth reviewing what the movie was actually about. (Spoiler advisories apply.) As the press and bloggers have reminded us a few times now, the plot involves a businessman who is mysteriously abducted one dark and rainy night and then held prisoner for 15 years. It eventually emerges that it is all some extremely elaborate and complicated plot to punish Dae-su Oh for some thoughtless behavior at school, hence the title Oldboy, which refers to a fellow alumnus or school chum. This is certainly a grim irony, now that the movie will forever be associated with a slaughter in a school. One of the most memorable scenes in the movie involves the protagonist, armed with nothing but a claw hammer, single-handedly taking on well more than a dozen thugs—and winning! A blogger called Nevin at the Wired web site, while ultimately dismissing the movie-killer connection, wrote about that sequence, “It’s an incredible scen [sic] — for my money, one of the greatest fight scenes ever filmed — but I can see why people would imagine there to be parallels. After all, the scene is about a South-Korean loner inflicting vengeful physical violence on about thirty people at once.”

If the real-life killer saw this connection, he would have had to be delusional indeed to compare the gunning down of unarmed students with coming out on top in a 30-to-1 brawl. A better argument to make for the killer-to-movie connection would stem from the villain of the piece. It turns out that Dae-su Oh’s nemesis is an extravagantly wealthy man with an apartment kitted out with all the latest and trendiest and shiniest mod cons. As one insightful reviewer (okay, you knew it was me) noted, comparing Oldboy to another Korean film, Public Enemy, “The combined lesson of the two films, as far as I can discern anyway, is that rich metrosexuals are the epitome of evil.” The ruthless villains in both movies bear not only a strange similarity to each other but also to the subject of the novel and movie American Psycho. In other words, there is a not-so-subtle theme of class conflict and the coldness and ruthlessness and amorality of modern affluence running through these movies. By contrast, the heroes of these movies tend to be men who are working class or who have lost everything. If no one has yet pointed this out and connected it to the butcher of Blacksburg’s video rant that was apparently against rich classmates, then allow me to be the first. And then to say that I still don’t believe a word of it. At least that I don’t believe that it “explains” anything.

The media packet that the VT murderer assembled and then posted to NBC during a pause in his killing spree raises a more pertinent question in my mind. Has the dark vision conjured by screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky in the 1976 movie Network finally come to full fruition? I’ll attempt to elaborate on that next time.

-S.L., 26 April 2007

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