Oldboy is one of those films which I’d heard was excellent but luckily knew nothing more. About three years ago I finally sat down and watched it. I then had to watch it the next day as well. Since those first two watches and subsequent two or three, Oldboy has become one of my favourite films of all time and opened up a now longstanding love affair with Korean cinema. Beginning with Director Park Chan-wook’s other films I began to discover incredible actors such as Song Kang-ho (The Host, Thirst, J.S.A.) which in turn lead me to discover more fantastic Director’s like Lee Jeong-beom (TheMan from Nowhere), Chul-soo Jang (Bedevilled) and Kim Ji-woon (I Saw the Devil, The Good, the Bad, The Weird). In essence, Oldboy for me was a small crack of light which opened the door to a bright world of film discovery and in the four years since I first saw it, it remains not only one of the best Korean movies I’ve seen but one of the best full stop.
A drunken man called Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is awaiting collection from a Police Station. His friend arrives to take him home to his young daughter whose birthday it is. While the friend makes a quick call from a payphone, Dae-su disappears and isn’t heard of again for nearly fifteen years. During those fifteen years he is locked up in a small room without an explanation or any idea of when or if he will get out. While locked up he is framed for his wife’s murder and his daughter is adopted in Sweden. A decade and a half later Dae-su is released, again without explanation but is told he has until July 5th to work out why he was locked up or his new friend Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung) will be killed.
There is so much that I like about this film that it’s difficult to know where to start. The thing that defines it though is its plot. The mystery and intrigue matches anything that even Hitchcock could muster and the first time I watched I had no idea how things would turn out or why. The final reveal left my mouth agape and I still believe it is one of the all time greatest twists (Bruce Willis was dead all along). Even besides that noteworthy plot point the film as a whole has an excellent story. As a viewer we only ever know what Oh Dae-su knows. We are never given any more of the story or clues than he is and as a result we get to join in with the problem solving and clue hunting. I personally didn’t get anywhere close although I do know people who made correct guesses. Despite the mystery the film is fairly linear and isn’t at all complex. Even though the language and most of the actors are unknown to me I have never had to question a character’s role or why they are doing something. The film expertly balances along a tightrope of confusion and perfect sense.
Although the story is headline grabbing, the main reason I fell in love with Oldboy and indeed Park Chan-wook is the cinematography and visual style. Park could be compared to Quentin Tarantino in terms of style but the comparison isn’t deep. Both have a love of blood spilling and interesting camera zoom but Park moves the camera more. Tarantino is excellent at shooting scenes around tables with the camera moving slowly around the characters. Park Cha-wook makes his films feel like that table with his camera circling it. He creates interesting and unique angles and has the most beautiful framing of any Director working today. His design is also beautiful and he manages to create a very drab and depressing world but one which is full of lines. Oh Dae-su’s world is full of wavy lines and feels like a bit of a jumble whereas the movie’s villain lives in a world of crisp right angles and clean surfaces. The two are diametrically opposed. Something I’ve never picked up on previous viewings are the film noir elements. The film takes a lot from noir and though I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was film noir it could certainly be classed as neo-noir. There is a voiceover, presented from the point of view of a lone, confused yet determined man. The film makes use of low lighting, is set in a brutal, often dreamlike world and while I wouldn’t call the lead female a femme fetale, there is certainly a danger to her. The noir elements though are added to a whole host of possible genres for Oldboy to sit in. Although it’s first and foremost a thriller, there is drama in it and plenty of action and comedy too.
There are certain scenes which it is impossible not to mention while talking about Oldboy. Perhaps the most famous scene is ‘the corridor scene’ in which having been released; Dae-su goes back to his place of captivity and is confronted by about fifteen attackers. The scene took three days and seventeen takes to shoot but was finally all completed in one, long take. It is a masterful scene and unlike anything I’ve seen before. The camera follows the fight up and down the corridor at a 90 degree angle to the action. The fight is very claustrophobic and incredibly realistic. It is perhaps a bit absurd that a single man could take on over a dozen armed men but the film recognises that Do Dae-su isn’t a superhero. He gets hurt and gets out of breath as any normal person would but something inside him means he keeps going. Another famous scene is ‘the tongue scene’. This, like ‘the tooth scene’ still makes me wince and turn my head but the tongue scene shows Oh Dae-su’s physical state and desperation. ‘The Octopus scene’ is one which makes many people uncomfortable but I find fascinatingly weird. Besides the more action orientated or difficult to watch scenes, Oldboy contains tens of well crafted and original sequences of action, drama and comedy and there isn’t a single scene which I could do without or that feels misplaced.
Although he’d been acting for a decade and with critical acclaim in Korea, Oldboy instantly made Choi Min-sik globally recognised and it remains his defining film. Min-sik won the 2004 Grand Bell for Best Actor as well as a whole host of other awards and his performance is for me one of the all time greats. He doesn’t put a foot wrong and goes from deranged to calm to comedic to outlandish to violent and back to calm at the flip of a switch. The agony on his face in certain scenes is sublime and the obvious madness behind his eyes while incarcerated is superb. This madness is replaced by bloody-minded determination upon release but again, it’s perfectly judged. Kang Hye-jung is excellent as the young Sushi chef who befriends Dae-su. She is innocent and sweet and in many ways like a child. Her performance fits the role very well. Yoo Ji-tae plays a character that is for large swathes of the film, something of an enigma. He is often distant to the central plot but at the same time right there. It’s a well judged performance and a well written character.
In the west we are used to Hollywood Thrillers which occasionally entertain, crack wise and have plots which are as easy to read as a Mr. Men book. It is so rare that a film like Oldboy comes along that I instantly embraced it and eventually its Director and entire country. Oldboy is smart, witty, violent, tense, mysterious, shocking, well acted and beautifully shot. It is easily a 10/10 film for me as there is nothing I would alter, although I’m not Spike Lee. Although it is one of my favourites, by last nights forth or fifth viewing I did begin to notice tiny cracks here and there but if you’ve never seen Oldboy before I guarantee you’ll love it. If you don’t then I’ll let you read my review again for free.
- Choi Min-sik, a Buddhist said a prayer for each of the four octopi used while shooting.
- The film is losely based on a Japanese Manga of the same name.
- Oldboy is the centrepiece of Director Park Chan-wook's revenge trilogy with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance falling either side of it.
- An American remake is currently in production and set for release in 2013. Spike Lee is Directing with Josh Brolin, Elisabeth Olsen and Samuel L. Jackson starring.