2003, R, 120 min. Directed by Park Chan-wook. Starring Choi Min-sik, Yu Ji-tae, Kang Hye-jeong.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 29, 2005
This 2003 revenger from Korean upstart Chan-wook Park (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) is a multilayered, intensely performed, and viscerally visual tour de force – like a lavish birthday cake with a nail bomb hidden inside that you can’t stop devouring, even as the horror goes one step too far and then farther still. (It’s also being remade by Justin Lin (Better Luck Tomorrow) for Universal, so catch this original before it gets Americanized into a more palatable mediocrity.) The plot is at once pure simplicity and utterly unique: Seoul businessman Oh Dae-su (Choi) is kidnapped one drunken, rainy evening by parties unknown. He awakens in what appears to be a seedy motel room – complete with hideously tacky wallpaper, threadbare carpet, double bed, and television – but which is, in reality, a cell. Days, months, and years go by with no explanation given for his incarceration. A daily meal of boiled potstickers comes through a tiny slot in the door, and every so often sleeping gas is piped in as well. (When he awakes, the room has been cleaned and his hair has been cut. Where can I find a service like this?) From the television he learns that he has been framed for his wife’s murder – now, even if he escapes, he’s a wanted man. Fifteen years later, he is released as he wakes up on the grass-covered roof of a downtown Seoul building outfitted with a finely tailored suit, a cell phone, and a wallet stuffed with cash. From here on out Oldboy plays like a reverse D.O.A., as Dae-su (once portly but now rippling with muscles from years of shadow-fighting himself while imprisoned) seeks both the reason for and the person behind his bizarre situation. Romance, of a sort, comes when he drops in at a local restaurant and tells Mido (Kang), the female chef behind the counter, "I want something alive." He gets it, too, but why spoil your fun and tell you more? It soon becomes apparent, however, that Dae-su is far from free – that cell phone in his pocket rings with ever-more-confounding riddles from his unseen tormentor, and as Dae-su methodically goes about the business of tracing his way back to the beginning (wherever and whatever that may be), bodies begin piling up. It’s not hyperbole to say that the plot of Park’s film is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions; there are echoes of the Bard’s most fatally flawed antiheroes here, and Choi gives a mesmerizing performance as an ordinary salaryman driven to the edge and beyond by outrageous fortune. It should be noted that Oldboy contains scenes of intense violence, including one dental workout that puts Marathon Man to shame. That said, the occasional outbursts of violence are far less disturbing than Oldboy’s overall tone, which is relentlessly grim and hinges on the notion of karmic retribution gone horrifically awry. Reduced to a near-animalistic state while imprisoned, Dae-su must claw (and bite, and stab) his way back to humanity from the primeval mind, all the while seeking answers to questions he never should have asked in the first place. Stylistically, Park’s film is drenched in the palette of angst, all muted greens and blues which are only occasionally interrupted by the staccato neon of rain-slicked Seoul streets. As tough as it may be to endure this brutal and brilliant film, it’s also a precisely constructed work of art. It received the Grand Jury prize at the last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Park has a Scorcesean eye for detail, and while the climax is admittedly something of a letdown after all the build-up, it’s a hopelessly, helplessly original film, all guts, no glory.