Laura CliffordA drunk and belligerent businessman, Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), is nothing but trouble when arrested for his disorderly behavior. His best friend (Dae-han Ji) bails him out of jail but, as Joo-wan calls Oh’s wife to console her because Dae-su missed their daughter’s birthday party, the drunken man disappears. This begins a tale of revenge, brainwashing, hypnosis, mayhem and incest in Korean helmer Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy.”
We next see Oh as he lay in what appears to be a locker lying on its side. He is pleading with his unseen captor to be released only to have the door slammed in his face. Looks are deceiving when we find that Dae-su is being held captive in a small, comfortable apartment. But, a prison, no matter how comfy, is still a prison and Oh spends his time learning to cope with imprisonment, wondering who did this to him – for the next 15 years. Abruptly, after such an interminable time, he is released from his jail and learns that he has just six days to get the answer to the real question that needs to be answered – why?
Oldboy” is, even by an avid film buff’s standards, a hard sell. Chan-wook Park tells a very dark story – both figuratively and literally with the highly shadowed, murky camerawork by Jeong-hun Jeong – that is both intriguing and confusing. Part of the confusion and ambiguity lay in the lack of explanation for Oh’s plight for an extended portion of the film. The other problem is the screenplay by committee with the director, Jo-yun Hwang, Chun-hyeong Lim and Joon-Hyung Lim (from a story by Garon Tsuchiya) credited. The overly constructed nature of the script smacks from too many hands messing with it and the decision to hurriedly explain all the twists in the end hurts the intrigue that the helmer builds through much of the film.
Oldboy” benefits from the presence of its star, Min-sik Choi, as the befuddled, violent Oh. From the drunken buffoon in the beginning to his later one-on-many fights with the bad guys, the actor shows the ability and range to give his character depth. Min-sik, who gave a powerful, passionate performance in “Chihwaseon (2002),” is a complicated, unpredictable man as Oh Dae-su. Through his years of captivity and hypnosis, he has evolved into a warrior with untested powers and uses his new skills to get the answers he so desperately needs, especially after learning he has been framed for his wife and daughter’s deaths while he was imprisoned.
Also mixed into the jumble of genres explored here is the martial arts vein that allows Oh to display the fighting prowess he attained through hypnotic suggestion while imprisoned. But, unlike the utterly stylish mayhem in “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” and “Kung Fu Hustle,” where the protagonist takes on the gang of bad guys all at once, “Oldboy” cops the easier route. You’ve seen it many times before – the hero faces a gang of 20 or so desperate killers but they obligingly attack one at a time to ensure the good guy’s victory. The fight sequences are not very exciting and are used as a mere plot device.
There are a number of disturbing aspects to “Oldboy” that do help the intrigue with the ever-present Big Brother oldboy, Woo-jin Lee (Ji-tae Yu), Dae-su’s puppetmaster responsible for the prisoner’s plight. There is a voyeur quality to the man, code named Evergreen, who manipulates Oh like a marionette, giving to and taking from the man at whim and will. Woo-jin’s omnipresence colors the film darkly with, unfortunately, his raison d’etre glibly rolled out in the end. The voyeuristic ambiguity of the character, for the bulk of “Oldboy,” keeps an edge that is palpable.
Techs are adequate to sometimes poor with the murky lighting making it hard to make out some sequences. There are graphic scenes – you won’t be ordering octopus at your favorite sushi bar anytime soon if you see “Oldboy” – and lurid sexuality that will appeal to the more hard core film nut, but will leave the squeamish viewer disturbed, especially if you have a fear of dentists. The themes of sadism, torture, incest, murder, imprisonment and brainwashing may also leave a sizable portion of the viewing audience cold.
The South Korean film industry has made some remarkable inroads distributing their product successfully into western markets. There have been some incredible, world-class films coming from that country, with the likes of the terrific “Oasis” and the visually stunning “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring.” Unfortunately, “Oldboy” lacks the coherent storytelling and simple beauty of these other films but will tickle the interest of the horror/mystery fans. You need to be patient and pay strict attention to get it the first time around. I give it a B-.
'Laugh, and the world laughs with you' Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Oh Dae-Su (Min-sik Choi, "Chihwaseon") is a salary man going home for his daughter's birthday, but he gets drunk on the way and ends up in jail. His buddy Joo-hwan (Dae-han Ji, "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring") bails him out, but while Joo-hwan pacifies Dae-Su's wife at a pay phone, Oh is snatched by a mysterious man and locked into a hotel room for 15 years in cowriter/director Chanwook Park's ("Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance," "Joint Security Area") "Oldboy."
If ever an Asian film should have been called "The Grudge," this is it. This stylish, squirm-inducing revenge tale takes some odd twists while Chanwook and his writing team (Jo-yun Hwang, Chun-hyeong Lim and Joon-hyung Lim) add subtextual commentary on the power of wealth over the Everyman.
Chanwook tells his story in three acts. The first charts Dae-Su's imprisonment, the mental tricks he uses to keep his sanity, his physical training, his frameup for his wife's murder while being held and his plot to escape. This ends on an ambiguous note - Oh's being hypnotized into believing he is in an endless field of green grass and when he awakens, he's free on the building's roof in a large patch of grass. The second act follows Dae-Su's quest for revenge against his mysterious kidnapper, aided by Joo-hwan and a young woman, Mido (Hye-jung Gang, "The Butterfly"), whom he meets in a sushi parlor. Oh ends up fighting on two fronts when he tangles with Mr. Park (Oh Dal-su), the man who rents the '7 1/2' floor where Oh spent fifteen years. In the third act, Dae-Su finally learns who his tormentor is, but as Lee Woo-jin (Ji-tae Yu, "Sky Blue") always reminds him, it's not the who but the why.
"Oldboy" has something for just about anyone who can watch a man eat a live octopus or extract another man's teeth with a hammer. There's the May December romance between Dae-Su and Mido, who tells Dae-Su he'll know she's ready to consummate their relationship when she sings a certain song. Creepy eroticism permeates a scene when gas-masked men deliver a brightly wrapped box to the room where Dae-Su and Mido lie entwined naked on a bed, unconscious. There's a buddy element in the long term loyalty between Dae-Su and Joo-hwan. Wealth institutes a class separation and the term hush money has never been so literal as it is here. Dark jabs of humor punctuate the proceedings. And of course, there's the central mystery whose pieces fall together in surprising ways. There's a giddy delight in watching a man try to crack his case by taste testing fried dumplings. The final revelation is a let down, until the director delivers his final punch with a piece of manipulation so twisted it's deliriously sadistic.
Min-sik Choi, so blistering in "Chihwaseon," gives an utterly different, if no less compelling performance here. Dae-Su gives him a huge character arc - his quest for revenge is underscored by a new found lust for life as well as a sensitivity.
Visually the film has a look of Asian noir. Dae-Su's hotel room is presented in various ways - our first view is a canny shot that implies he's been incarcerated in a coffin-like box while later overheads give the impression of a rat in a maze. Chanwook emphasizes the passing of time via a montage of historical events Dae-Su sees on news broadcasts and with the dramatic changes in Dae-Su's appearance. Original music by Yeong-wook Jo ("Joint Security Area," "Tell Me Something") - Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" is also used - injects a European flavor into the mood.
Home | Review and Ratings Archive | Top 10 | Video | Crew | Article | Links