Director: Park Chan-wook
Cast: Choi Min-sik, Kang Hye-jung, Yoo Ji-tae, Kim Byeong-ok, Oh Dal-su
Plot: A father (Min-sik) is imprisoned for fifteen years for no apparent reason. He is released by his captors without any warning, left with an unquenchable thirst for vengeance and answers.
I have no idea what I expected from Oldboy, but it certainly wasn’t this.
Preconceptions of Oldboy usually involve whispers about its extreme violence and intense action sequences. Combined with a brief synopsis of the plot and context and you think you have this movie pegged. An everyday man is kidnapped, thrown into a cell for fifteen years and blamed for the murder of his wife. Broken and desperate, our hero, Oh Dae-su, trains his body into fighting fit condition, fuelled by a search for answers and the need to punish whoever is behind this horror. When he gets released onto the streets, he picks up a hammer and goes about tracking down the person to blame for the nightmare he has been living for the last decade and a half. I thought that Oldboy would be a magnificent Korean bloodbath, with the lead smashing his way through a list of thugs, until he got to the man behind it all. It partially is that, but Oldboy is so much more than a brainless action. In fact, I wouldn’t call it action its first genre, despite some magnificent fight sequences. I picture Oldboy as an intense conspiracy thriller, with an intriguing mystery glueing the story together that unfolds into a terrific and shocking finale.
Park Chan-wook deserves most of the praise for this movie’s success thanks to some truly brilliant direction. It is the small things that keeps you hooked on this movie. As it opens, you realise that this is a movie made for a pretty small budget. However, Chan-wook squeezes every frame for what it is worth with some neat directional tricks. Certain shots are artfully pulled off, with symbolism and symmetry that Film Studies students will be pouring over for decades to come. One fight scene in a narrow corridor will go down in cult history, as Oh Dae-su takes on endless amounts of thugs armed with fight moves learnt on the television and a single hammer. Even the missteps are actually clever beats of story. The sex scenes in particular come across as a little too graphic. Oh Dae-su’s violent love-making to a younger girl and, later on, two teenagers in a moment of passion, comes across as voyeuristic and too indulgent of a director wanting to bring in a more chauvinistic action audience. However, both of these sex scenes are actually filmed very specifically, and intelligently, as certain beats of information throw more light onto them. It is a credit to Chan-wook’s direction that he is able to use tricks like this to make us applaud his work even more.
Credit also belongs in Choi Min-sik’s camp. He is given the job of portraying the protagonist here and it is a powerhouse performance. I haven’t seen the American reboot yet, but I already can picture the downfall being an actor unwilling to take themselves to levels that Min-sik was willing to go. Dae-su is a hard hero to get right. He begins this movie unlikeable and alienating, yet we are drawn to him nonetheless. Min-sik nails it in the very first scene, as the camera holds a shot of his drunken antics in a police station. He is both annoying, yet irresistibly amusing – we are left amazed that he is going to be the action hero in this movie for the next two hours. He manages it though, effortlessly and coolly accomplishing every fighting manoeuvre he is asked to perform. Other beats leave us awe-struck at his energy, especially the ending, when his character arc explodes into a desperate and broken break-down. Just as impressive is the villain, Ji-tae. A lot of films like this don’t really focus on the bad guy, more interested in the hero cutting through as many villains as he can. However, Oldboy is anchored by the shadowy nemesis orchestrating this whole endeavour. He has peculiar motives and drifts through the movie with a serene eeriness. His emotions are worn on his sleeve, often accumulating into shocking fits of rage. The highlight of his performance is him delivering the trademark villain monologue, while dressing himself in a crisp suit. Chan-wook directs him fantastically and we relish him as the mastermind behind this whole thing.
And the ending really is phenomenal. It wasn’t as action-packed as I imagined it would be, but the story is so strong here that it never really becomes a problem. As Dae-su finally grasps the answers he has been seeking throughout this whole film, the villain’s motives are laid out on the table and it is a particularly engaging scene. And just when we think it is all over, one final twist is pulled from Chan-wook’s sleeve and we are left mind-blown at the brilliance in the conspiracy. Rarely does the final trick work so well in thriller movies like these, but Oldboy succeeds in pulling the mat from right under our feet.
Final Verdict: An engaging thriller with some great direction. A cult Korean movie that is definitely worth a watch.