An artful violent film, the Korean actioner Oldboy has justly been given much more serious critical attention than violent films generally receive, & it was recipient of the 2004 Grand Priz at the Cannes Film Festival. It is inevitably compared to Quentin Tarantino as the western exemplar of art & violence, but it is much more reminiscent of the films of Japan's Beat Takeshi or the very best of Takashi Miike.
Oh Dae-su is an ordinary businessman who goes on a bender & wakes up a prisoner in an inescapable hotel room. He is kept in isolation for fifteen years, then released, & given five days to solve the mystery of why he was thus abused.
His only companion during his captivity was the television, & he well remembered that day on the news when his wife was murdered & he the prime suspect, his captor having slipped a drinking glass out of the hotel room so that Oh Dae-su's fingerprints were at the crime. When let loose he couldn't go to the police as he was wanted for murder.
For ten of his fifteen years in captivity he trained himself physically with a plan to avenge himself on his captors. Having lost whatever social capacity he might formerly have possessed, it does not take long before some annoyed street-toughs give him his first opportunity to find out if his training with imaginary partners had any relevance in a street fight. It did.
He immediately meets & falls in love with a lonely strange young woman. He begins getting phone calls from his ex-captor & eventually meets him, & is warned that the young woman will be killed on the fifth day if Oh Dae-su fails to solve the mystery.
As the mystery comes unravelled & devolves into a high level of deviance, it is frankly not as intriguing as before the "answer" was revealed. Plus extreme coincidence is explained as having been caused by hyponotic suggestions directing our anti-hero's movements. A lot of this I just couldn't find all that credible & I would've been happier with a more down-to-earth resolution to the mystery. But the film doesn't cheat; there is a reason for every strange thing that happens, all focusing on a degree of vengeance with a psychological irony that is supposed to let the villain trump our anti-hero's "merely" visceral form of vengeance.
The quest for the horrific answer to the puzzle is punctuated with extreme violence, like when Oh Dae-su avenges himself on one of his ex-captor's flunkies by removing one tooth for every year he was held in isolation.
His weapon of choice is a hammer, used not only to pry out the teeth, but in a couple of the intense fight scenes. The mesmerizing quality of the central performance grows out of a level of acting far beyond what one expects from an action hero, but Min-sik Choi as Oh Dae-su is frankly a great actor for the emotional content as well as for his physical presence.
In the pre-captivity scenes when he is a sloppy drunk, he truly seems a different person than the man who is released with vengeance his only goal. Another actor of less complexity & nuance would not have been able to sell this script to the viewer so wholeheartedly, as the excellence of the piece is in the performance rather than the writing.
During his fifteen years alone, there was a poster on the wall of a clown with an evil grin, & he absorbed this image into himself so that he himself grins most evilly at inappropriate moments. This one element of his character is just goshawful effective, & I'd be surprised if some English language film such as by Tarantino doesn't someday swipe this easily imitated character trait. But I doubt anyone will ever do it as effectively with just the right degree of grotesque humor.
The DVD has language options & can be watched dubbed or in Korean with English subtitles. I vastly prefer such films with subtitles as a lot of the acting effect is lost by changing the voices & language. But I accidentally started the film in English dub & it didn't sound too bad, though when I went back to set-up to get it in Korean, it was much better.
See also my review of the second film of Chan-wook Park's "revenge trilogy" Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance as well as the third & final cycle of revenge films, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl