Min-sik Choi as Dae-su Oh
Ji-tae Yu as Woo-jin Lee
Hye-jeong Kang as Mi-do
Dae-han Ji as No Joo-hwan
Seung-Shin Lee as The Hypnotist
Dal-su Oh as Mr. Park
Byeong-ok Kim as Mr. Han
Jin-seo Yun as Su-a/Woo-jin’s sister
If Tarantino, Fincher, Aronofsky and Miike collaborated on a movie, it would probably be as deeply disturbing and deranged as Oldboy. It’s the ultimate revenge flick!
On the day that his daughter is born, Oh Dae-su is kidnapped and imprisoned in a room with nothing but a television. His imprisonment slowly drives him mad and as he desperately tries to escape, he is finally released after fifteen years. His only desire is to find out who imprisoned him and why and to get his revenge. Little does he know that he’s being played every step of the way.
Just when you think you’ve seen everything, another Korean film comes along that changes your perceptions of what can be done in movies. In this case, it’s Park Chanwook’s Oldboy, which at its very core is a modern retelling of Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo” as siphoned through the grim world of the Korean underground. It takes a very different view of the classic revenge thriller, forcing the story’s unwitting protagonist to decipher clues given to him by a sadistic enemy. It was an impressive enough idea to get an early fan in Quentin Tarantino, who brought it to the Cannes Film Festival last year.
From the very first jarring scene of a petrified man dangling over the side of a high-rise building, being held by his necktie by a deranged looking bearded man with long hair, you just know that you’re in for something different. The man with the beard is Oh Dae-Su, and we go back in time to a younger, pudgier version of the same man who has wound up in a police station due to his drunk and disorderly behavior while celebrating the birth of his daughter. Shortly after being bailed out by a friend, Dae-Su is kidnapped and thrown into a locked room with no windows and only a television set for company. As the weeks turn into months, he works out, trains himself and tries to find a way out of his cell, slowly going insane in the process, especially after learning that he has been framed for his wife’s murder while imprisoned.
Fifteen years later, Dae-Su is released onto the roof of a building where he meets the suicidal man we meet earlier and Dae-Su stops him from jumping to tell him his story. Still having no idea why he’s been imprisoned, Dae-Su begins a desperate search for the person responsible in order to get answers and revenge. Along the way, he meets a cute but lonely sushi chef named Mido, who seems to have as many emotional problems as our hero. Dae-Su ends up tracking a wealthy man named Lee Woo-jin, who claims responsibility but chooses to keep Dae-Su in the dark about him reasons, giving him five days to find the answers on his own if he wants to save Mido from being killed.
Oldboy is a very dark film, told in three distinct sections, each of which changes he nature of the story and the dynamics between the three main players. Certainly, elements of David Fincher’s The Game and Tarantino’s own revenge epic Kill Bill can be found in Dae-Su desperate thirst for answers, but the movie’s success hinges on the relationship between Dae Su and Lee Woo-jin, the latter who represents a level of evil and sadism that hasn’t been seen in films since Hannibal Lecter. Lee uses all of his money and resources, going to great lengths to stay one step ahead of Dae-Su, leading to a climactic standoff that will shock even the most steadfast of viewers.
While it wouldn’t be too hard for someone to find holes in the imperfect plot, the way the story unfolds is what makes it so brilliant, and the ending takes sick and twisted to a new level with a series of disturbing plot twists that few will expect. A few scenes will not be for the faint of heart or weak of stomach, but Park Chanwook is brilliant in the way that he shows just enough to shake the viewer but leaving even more to the imagination.
Likewise, Oldboy‘s action scenes are not the graceful martial arts one is used to from Asian films, preferring a more visceral and gritty form of fist-fighting. Park’s unconventional techniques extend to how he films these scenes, too. In a pivotal fight scene, Dae-Su fights his way through a hallway full of gangsters armed only with a hammer, which Park shoots with a single camera following him from one end to the other without a single edit. It’s this sort of ingenious thinking that makes this a highly stylish film that never seems flashy or overly contrived. Overall, the film is visually stunning, accompanied by a gorgeous score that helps make every scene powerful and dramatic.
The Bottom Line:
Oldboy is another fine example of innovative Korean filmmaking coming much like the recent A Tale of Two Sisters (which Oldboy‘s American distributor Tartan Films releases on DVD later this month). It’s unlikely that you’ve ever seen anything quite like this before, and it’s very unlikely that you’ll ever see a film that leaves such a lasting impression on you afterwards.