Oldboy (2005)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/22/05 11:29:29

"Nasty, in all the best ways."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Oldboy is nasty, but for the most part, it's compelling-nasty as opposed to gratuitous-nasty. Everything about it, from its plot to its performances to its violence, is over-the-top, and if there's an idea that can make the average member of an audience uncomfortable, Oldboy probably hits it at some point. Still, the shocks don't really become repulsive until the last act - acclaimed Korean director Park Chan-wook fills his garish movie with as much intrigue as grotesquerie.

The movie opens with credits suggesting clocks, and then a wild-haired man holding another off the side of the building. We flash back to see him some time earlier, drunk and disorderly in a police station waiting for a friend to pick him up, and learn that his name, "Oh Dae-su", means "easy to get along with". As his friend calls Dae-su's wife, though, we find out that someone doesn't find him so agreeable, as Dae-su disappears. We next see him in a tiny apartment whose door has an opening in the bottom for his jailors to pass him food but no explanations. After a year locked in the apartment, there's a report on TV about his wife being murdered, with Dae-su the prime suspect. He'll stay there much longer, the television his only contact with the outside world, slowly trying to dig his way out, training himself to be at least fit enough to handle himself in a fight, even if he has no sparring partners. Bare days before his escape is complete, though, he is released. He tells this story to a man he finds ready to jump off a roof, and then begins the grim business of finding out who imprisoned him - and perhaps more importantly, why.

As Dae-su, Choi Min-sik is a frightening presence. He looks like he's been held in the woods, not a Souel apartment and though the television has kept him informed enough to prevent any Rip van Winkle-style confusion, his social skills have atrophied and he's as single-minded in his purpose as one would imagine. He's like the Count of Monte Cristo without the clarity - a TV instead of a mentor with whom he could interact, no idea on whom to focus his lust for revenge, and a murder charge still hanging over his head. The audience can't help but admire his resourcefulness and strength of purpose despite being worried that he's going to snap - or already has.

There are a couple people who appear to be potential allies - Mido (Kang Hye-jeong) is a young sushi chef he saw profiled on TV who takes an interest in him when appears in her restaurant demanding to eat something alive (more shocking in the West than in Korea, where still-moving octopus is not an uncommon meal); No Joo-hwan (Ji Dae-han) was the man who picked him up at the police station and now runs an internet café. They seem trustworthy, but are they really? More clearly untrustworthy are Park Cheol-woong (Oh Dal-su), who runs an imprisonment business, and Lee Woo-jin (Yu Ji-tae), a wealthy man who travels with a retinue of bodyguards.

I wasn't much of a fan of Park Chan-wook's previous movie to receive a U.S. release, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, but Oldboy is much more impressive. The story comes from a Japanese manga, and while Park probably doesn't crib images from his source material quite so verbatim as Robert Rodriguez did with Sin City, some very manga-like bits remain. The shot of Dae-su emerging from a trunk into a field of grass (soon revealed to be a rooftop garden), and the darkly comic follow-up with the man he meets there, in particular, are striking. There's also an astounding fight between Dae-su and a dozen of Park's henchmen that looks for all the world like a single take. park infuses the movie with energy and surrealism.

The screenplay - by Park and other collaborators - is strong in its overall structure although it has some issues in the details. One of the reasons the movie chugs along so well is that it starts letting Dae-su find a trail and some answers rather quickly, rather than just stringing him along until the end. Some of the details seem rather coincidental, and a couple bits of misdirection might merit a little more explanation, but the story is solid. I had some complaints about the end, where Dae-su's actions go completely over the top, both in terms of being just disgusting (if not as graphic as a similar scene in Ichi the Killer) and not making any sense that I could see.

Oldboy might not be marked down as a horror movie by those who make such distinctions, as it has no supernatural elements, but it's one of the more unsettling films I've seen in a while. Despite one of the earliest scenes taking place in a police station, there's a frightening lawlessness to the movie - the cops arrest Dae-su for drunkenness, and a murder charge hangs over him for much of the movie, but the functions of law-enforcement are usurped and twisted by the villains - people are imprisoned for a fee (Dae-su is not the only victim, just one of the longer-term ones) and for twisted reasons. Often, morality is skewed, and used as little more than a justification for barbarism. Even the victories come in a dispiriting manner.

Korea currently has one of the world's most vital national cinemas, in part because of movies like Oldboy. It's an inventive, entertaining thriller; high-concept and accessible without being conventional. It mis-steps a bit in the end, but not nearly enough to negate all the time you've spent leaning forward, just needing to know what's going to happen next.

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