The self-portrait of Virginia Tech gunman Cho Seung-Hui wielding a hammer, contained in a multimedia package that he mailed to NBC, fueled Internet speculation yesterday that he was inspired by the 2003 South Korean revenge thriller Oldboy.
This bloody Kafka-esque thriller about a Seoul businessman framed for murder won the Grand Prize at Cannes in 2004 and became a cult favorite for stylized violence, notably a scene of the hero using his hammer to fight off more than a dozen thugs.
The movie ranks No. 116 on the Internet Movie Database's "Top 250" and is a perennial top rental at specialty stores. But Michael Bradley, co-owner of Baltimore's Video Americain, has seen no surge of interest in Oldboy since the Virginia Tech shootings. "It's just always been pretty popular," he said. "Of that genre, it's got a reputation for being high-quality."
Despite that one image of Cho with a two-fisted grip on a hammer, and another self-portrait of him holding a gun to his own temple, there appeared to be no clear connection between Oldboy and Cho.
Paul Harrill, who teaches film and video at Virginia Tech, initially drew attention to the similarities between Oldboy and Cho. London's Evening Standard first announced the link, reporting yesterday that, "Police believe Cho Seung-Hui repeatedly watched the movie." But no subsequent report has confirmed that theory or suspicion. Harrill, in an e-mailed statement, expressed dismay over the snowballing story, and said he was simply making an observation. His point, he wrote, was to "initiate a conversation" about "news outlets using a mass murderer's fantasies as sick spectacle and - let us never forget - as a source of revenue."
From the perspective of his colleague Stephen Prince, professor of communication at Virginia Tech and the author of Classical Film Violence, theories that Oldboy caused this tragedy or "that any single movie" has caused similar calamities "are kind of specious." In Oldboy, he notes, revenge "doesn't turn out well for the perpetrator. But when an event like this happens people seek explanations. ... The idea of movies causing it can be comforting."
To Prince, what may be more perilous is the news media molding an icon from the picture of Cho with his guns drawn, then headlining it with phrases fit for Old West gunslingers. Prince says, "The news media ought to be looking at themselves. They're giving this guy's videotapes a tremendous amount of play and defining his actions in a certain way. They're talking about him as `America's deadliest gunman.' Talk about giving the next guy who comes around like this incentive."
But the professor doesn't want to let popular culture off the hook. "If you're going to have a media culture that, by and large, fixates on glamorous images of violence, there ought to be a counterbalancing examination of what violence actually does to people emotionally, psychologically and morally."
As the news trickled out about Monday's atrocities, what Prince thought was "how much the movies get wrong." As he prepares to return to teaching next week, what he's dealing with at Virginia Tech is the "tremendous amount of loss" that violence leaves in its wake. And that is not something, he says, "that our movies typically get very well."
Movie critic Chris Kaltenbach contributed to this article.