From the Vault #31: OLDBOY (2003)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from May 29th, 2014…

Based loosely off a successful Japanese manga of the same name by Nobuaki Minegishi, Oldboy is the second part of South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-Wook’s ‘Vengeance Trilogy’, a non-connected trio of movies that nonetheless deal with similar weighty themes including violence, revenge and ultimately salvation.

Of the trio, Oldboy is arguably the most well known and indeed the most celebrated, winning the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2004 & feted by Quentin Tarantino, not to mention subsequently being remade by American auteur Spike Lee almost a decade later – proving its durability as a striking piece of work. Oldboy is not, however, what you may have been told, or indeed expect; chances are you’d be imagining this a hard-boiled, action thriller of powerful violent revenge, and while there are components of that in Chan-Wook’s film, ultimately this is a devastating character study wrapped around a mystery that steadily, carefully unfolds over the running time in twisted, elegiac and often surreal fashion.

It’s memorable for speaking on a variety of different thematic levels.

Conceptually, it’s a great hook.

Choi Min-sik gives a marvellous performance as Oh Dae-su, a loud, boorish businessman with a young family who is captured by forces unknown on his daughters birthday and held in an isolated room for what turns out to be 15 long years, after which he’s released following a long-held, quiet attempt at escape and, with the burning desire for vengeance, seeks the truth as to who kept him prisoner and crucially why. That’s really just the tip of Chan-Wook’s iceberg however, his narrative moving deeper than simple action fayre into darker, more psychological, more unsettling and strange territory.

The signs of this exist right from the start, with Min-sik immediately breaking down a man way out of his depth, mentally destroyed by his captivity & the complete absence of understanding; he’s forced to rely on television to survive & keep track of time, clinging to the vein hope he may not just escape but also understand, and that a key point to Chan-Wook’s film: Dae-su is often presented with a choice on his journey to understand or act upon his equal desire for vengeance, and it further tears him apart, deeper down the rabbit hole he goes.

The reason Oldboy is such a success goes beyond Chan-Wook’s poised, unnerving yet visceral direction – it really lives or dies on how Min-sik characterises Dae-su, and he successfully brings to bear a deeply flawed, deeply changed, deeply affected man who you simultaneously want to see gain justice while also feeling repulsed by, and disturbed; he’s an enormously complicated protagonist and it would be a great surprise were you not moved by what he experiences come the climax.

Another reason it’s such a success is also the script, which does a terrific job of balancing the character story for Dae-su whilst crafting a compelling narrative–even when scenes take their time or slip into utter surrealism (such as Mi-do and the giant ant on the subway train)–and developing strong supporting players around him, chiefly Kang Hye-Jung as Mi-do, a young, kindly chef who takes Dae-su in and rapidly falls under his thrall, both scared by his quest and sexually attracted to his isolated power; hers is a very tricky role actually, needing to balance sensitivity, sensuality and fragility all in one pot, which she manages with aplomb.

Equal credit goes to Yoo Ji-Tae as Lee Woo-Jin, a wealthy man who plays a key role in Dae-su’s story and, again, must balance a youthful calm with simmering emotions that it would be unfair to explore here but suffice to say, he has an equally complicated character to balance between sympathy & outright loathing. The piece pivots around this trio and allows Chan-Wook to weave a genuinely involving, disturbing and surprising narrative; people doubtless may remember Oldboy for the eyebrow raising moments such as the teeth extraction, the live octopus eating (which Min-sik did for real, extraordinarily, four times!), or a stunning one-take tracking shot as Dae-su takes out a flood of goons using his makeshift, in captivity fighting skills, which took three days to master and sees Chan-Sook brilliantly inject realism into what other films would have made a superhuman moment.

However, Oldboy truly deserves remembering for how well it crafts its central enigma, reaching a final climactic revelation that is perhaps as devastating to us as it is Dae-su, and indeed is a very brave and murky narrative choice it took conviction to play.

Hailed as one of the top ten movies in the history of Asian cinema, it’s hard to suggest Oldboy should not be on that list. It’s a truly striking, original vision from Park Chan-Wook that brings to life a vivid, complex story in often riveting fashion; it’s dark, it’s often funny in a truly jet black fashion, it’s shot stylistically with a blend of murky grunge offset by striking bright colour that accentuates the surreal touches around an elegant yet eerie, and psychologically disturbing story, all building to an open-ended conclusion that is suggestive rather than frustrating, leaving us to ponder instead of fume.

With a set of superb performances, a great script touching on many thematic levels, and an original directorial voice, it remains an almost flawless piece of mystery thriller filmmaking.

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