Oldboy (South Korea, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Oldboy could be considered a mystery. Or a bloody revenge picture. Or a twisted romance. Or a tale of extreme karma. Regardless of how you look at Oldboy, it's unlike anything you are likely to have seen before. Director Park Chan-wook starts with a great premise, and uses it as a springboard for a flawed-yet-compelling yarn of life-and-death, cat-and-mouse games between Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) and his arch-enemy, Lee Wu-jin (Yu Ji-tae), with the beautiful, vulnerable Mido (Kang Hye-jeong) caught in the middle. And, just when you think you know where Oldboy is headed, the film takes a turn designed to foil all expectations.

One rainy evening, after being bailed out of jail on a drunk and disorderly charge, Oh Dae-su heads home to deliver a birthday present to his young daughter. He never gets there. He is kidnapped, and awakens in a cell - the location where he is destined to spend the next 15 years of his life. His captors frame him for the murder of his wife, assuring that if he ever escapes, he will be a wanted man. Then, after 15 years, he is suddenly and inexplicably set free. There is no one on the outside to provide assistance except Mido, a young female chef who takes pity on him. But before Dae-su can begin a new life, he must answer several key questions. Who imprisoned him for 15 years? Why? And why was he released? Only after he has answers can he exact his revenge and turn the page. Meanwhile, his former captor, Lee Wu-jin, decides to turn Dae-su's quest for answers into a cruel game. If Dae-su doesn't solve the riddle in five days, Mido will die.

Oldboy is, at times, a brutal motion picture. Although the quantities of blood are far below that of, say, Kill Bill, it's the nature of the violence that will force members of the audience with weak constitutions to turn away. I gritted my teeth through two sequences. One involves the forcible removal of teeth and the other connects a pair of scissors with a tongue. Perhaps it's the relatively mundane nature of these scenes that makes them particularly gruesome. There's also plenty of "conventional" violence, including a 20-on-one melee that, while poorly choreographed, is played as much for laughs as for action.

Oldboy features a delightfully twisty story that rarely pauses to consider the logic (or lack thereof) of some of its most outrageous plot contortions. It is at times confusing, and probably needs to be watched twice for everything to become clear. The revelation of the big secret is a bit of a letdown. Considering all of the build-up, I was expecting something more damning or momentous. And the final confrontation between Dae-su and Wu-jin, although it starts out with an appropriate level of mutual malice and tension, implodes into ridiculousness before it concludes.

Weaknesses aside, Oldboy is consistently compelling. Since the story is told from Dae-su's point-of-view, we're as much in the dark as he is, and we want answers. Wu-jin proves to be a top-notch villain. For every move that Dae-su makes, his opponent is at least one step ahead of him. Oldboy has the kind of narrative momentum that many thrillers try for, but rarely achieve. It makes the two hours fly by (although about 30 minutes could have been cut without inflicting much damage).

The aspect of the film that adds a human dimension to the proceedings is the relationship between Dae-su and Mido. Revenge films, like their subject matter, are "best served cold." The warmth in Oldboy comes from the love story, which is anything but traditional. Dae-su is initially suspicious of Mido - after all, her arrival in his life is almost too fortuitous for it to be a coincidence - but he eventually warms up to her, and she to him. The interaction between these two is touching, and it's one of the primary reasons why Oldboy works.

The acting is solid (despite Kang Hye-jeong's tendency to whine) and Park's direction is stylish without going over-the-top. Occasional flaws are evident in his approach (such as during the crowded fight scene I mentioned above), but Oldboy offers such a display of kinetic energy that it's hard not to be swept along. This motion picture isn't for everyone, but it offers a breath of fresh air to anyone gasping on the fumes of too many traditional Hollywood thrillers.

Oldboy (South Korea, 2003)

Director: Park Chan-wook
Cast: Choi Min-sik, Yu Ji-tae, Kang Hye-jeong
Screenplay: Hwang Jo-yun, Lim Joon-hyung, Park Chan-wook
Cinematography: Jung Jung-hoon
Music: Cho Young-wuk
U.S. Distributor: Tartan USA
Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2005-03-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: English subtitled Korean
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1