Park Chan-wook, 2004, South Korea , 120 mins, subtitles
Choi Min-sik, Kang Hye-jeong, Yu Ji-tae
Oldboy is preceded by an already infamous reputation, thanks primarily to the Tarantino-led Grand Jury prize at Cannes earlier this year. Add to this the growing interest in Korean cinema following the international success of films such as Shiri and Nowhere to Hide and you have one of the most highly anticipated films of the year. Director Park Chan-wook, whose previous works include the critically acclaimed Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Joint Security Area, has a lot of hype to live up to.
Despite its origins in Japanese manga the plot of Oldboy is pure Hollywood high-concept. Our hero Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) wakes up from a night on the town to find himself imprisoned in a cell with only a television for company - a television from which he learns that his wife has been murdered. Fifteen years later he is released and enlists the help of a young woman, Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong), to take his revenge on those responsible.
Although set out in sequence Oldboy appears to be a conventional revenge thriller its opening scenes depicting the fifteen years of Oh Dae-su's imprisonment are closer to those of a surreal horror film. In these scenes Chan-wook establishes a visual style that is forever surreal and an atmosphere in which anything can happen - familiar territory for any Lynch or Cronenberg fan. Once outside Dae-su is in full revenge mode, putting his fifteen years of 'imaginary' boxing training to use and taking no prisoners in his search for the truth. Here the film is more reminiscent of Lee Marvin's revenge rampage in Point Blank with touches of Miike Takashi's Ichi the Killer in the extremely violent torture scenes. But all cult film name-checks and visual references are forgotten when Oldboy finally settles into its true form - an existential mystery in which the question of 'why' is more important than 'who' with actions and consequences that are purely character driven.
Visually the film is a truly fresh and fascinating experience, with the best example being the lengthy fight sequence in the prison corridor where Oh Dae-Sue beats down fifteen armed men in a single take. It is a scene that must surely have taken days of rehearsal to produce, and yet retains a raw spontaneity that suggests it is happening for the first time right in front of you. There are also some stunning performances, particularly from Min-sik who's character moves from ultra-cool determination, through violent desperation to complete emotional breakdown, with a few moments of absurd comedy along the way. Yu Ji-Tae is also utterly believable as his tormentor Lee Woo-jin, with his coldly calculated antagonism and immaculate appearance providing a strong counter-point to the rough and unpredictable Dae-su. Chan-wook combines these elements along with a compelling script to produce a film that has something new and exciting around every corner.
The experience of watching Oldboy is much like that of the suicidal man being held over the edge of a rooftop by the title character in the film's opening sequence. This is how Park Chan-wook holds his audience and is perhaps the film's only major flaw. There is little for an audience to hold onto during the first half of the film with everything we think we are going to see snatched away from us at the last moment. One example of this is the moment when Oh Dae-su discovers in prison that he is the prime suspect in his wife's murder, but the murder and his fugitive status are barely even mentioned once he is released. When we finally settle into a story we are at ease with Chan-wook lets us drop with an ending that is truly devastating. Although this is also the strongest element of Oldboy, it also makes it a challenging and often confrontational experience.
Oldboy is not a film for everyone and the extreme violence and unconventional narrative and visual approach will certainly put off many viewers - some of whom may prefer to wait for the Hollywood re-make already announced for a 2006 release. Despite this Oldboy is a film that if not enjoyed will still be remembered, and a cinematic experience unlikely to be matched for some time.