Oldboy (2003)

Reviewed by Andrew Kasch

Starring Min-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hye-jeong Kang, Dae-han Ji

Directed by Chan-Wook Park

In the current hunger for Asian cinema, South Korea has been gaining quite a reputation – and rightfully so. For the past several years its film industry has completely evolved, giving birth to a whole new wave of original and artistic films. Sadly, none are horror.

Aside from one good film (A Tale of Two Sisters), their other efforts (Phone, The Uninvited, Whispering Corridors, etc., etc.) have been nothing more than pale J-horror imitations. On the other hand, Korean art-house dramas – known for their twisted and brutal nature – have become innovative genre films unto themselves. One of the break-out filmmakers in this arena is Chan-wook Park, whose brilliant Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance emerged as probably the single darkest movie ever made. Now he brings us the second stand-alone film in his “revenge trilogy”: the award-winning and highly touted Oldboy.

After a night of binge drinking, average family man Dae-su Oh awakes to find himself imprisoned in a hotel room. With absolutely no human contact or explanation for his confinement, his sanity begins to crumble as time slowly ticks away. After 15 years the manic Dae-su is inexplicably released back onto the streets. Struggling to readjust to the civilized world, he vows to find the reason for his incarceration and begins a vicious hunt for his captors.

Based on a Japanese manga, Oldboy is an eclectic over-the-top film packed with excessive violence and deep sentiment. Director Chan-wook Park moves the narrative along with hyper-intensity and a keen eye, achieving a style that is both beautiful and disorienting, and pulls the viewer deeper into Dae-su’s psychological nightmare. This is a film where the mind-games don’t just apply to the onscreen characters.

As the story progresses through the Korean underworld, Park delivers visceral setpieces, numerous action sequences (including the most impressive group fight ever staged), and plenty of shock tactics. Yet none of it feels superfluous. Even the smallest details add to the film’s warped emotional center.

The complexity in Oldboy applies not so much to the story as it does to its main character. Dae-su (played to perfection by Min-sik Choi) is a vivid, unstable, and dangerous man who beats and tortures his way toward satisfaction. As he enacts his bloody revenge, our “protagonist-by-default” slowly begins to lose what little remains of his humanity. Dae-su is fully conscious of this fact, which makes his descent into madness all the more powerful.

The whole thing culminates in a series of twists that shake and challenge the ideals of its audience – and not in a superficial M. Night Shyamalan manner. Like a kinky one-night stand, Park has his way with you, shows you wonderful and terrible things, and leaves you to ponder the whole experience.

In a time when cinema has grown increasingly stale and formulaic, Oldboy is a true wake-up call to both mainstream Hollywood and its pathetic counterculture. This is bold, gritty, and uncompromised cinema at its finest.

5 out of 5

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