I have to confess, I had not previously seen any examples of Korean cinema. And indeed, had I merely stumbled across Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy blindly, I might have thought the premise sounded moderately interesting, but I may still have passed it by. But blogging can be good for broadening one’s horizons. I had seen Oldboy bandied about the comments sections of some other film blogs, and it was always praised as being a captivating, dark, and “sick” film. I had thought “sick” was simply being used in that odd slang sense of “really cool”, but this wasn’t the case; they actually meant sick as in disturbing. But I’m still glad I took the time to watch it, as it is very well done. Plus, the film is being remade in English by Spike Lee (set to debut this coming October), so the film turning up on my radar now meant it was a convenient time to see it before the remake — and thus before the arguments over whether the remake was as good, better, or an utter travesty.
Oldboy tells the story of Oh Dae-su (Min-sik Choi), a gregarious drunk who one fateful night has to be bailed out of jail for drunk and disorderly charges. But before his friend can take him home, Dae-su is abducted by unknown figures, and finds himself in a rather different prison. An apparently privately-run prison. He is not told why he is there, nor for how long his stay is to be. After fifteen years, he is released, just as suddenly and inexplicably as he was imprisoned. A greatly changed man, Dae-su sets out to find out who was responsible for his imprisonment, and why it was done — and to get his revenge.
And to find out who picked the ugly decor.
Dae-su goes on a violent path of revenge tracking down the people responsible for his incarceration. Along the way he is helped by and contrasted with a young waitress named Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang) who takes a liking to him for unknown reasons. Mi-do’s relative innocence plays off of Dae-su’s wrath, tempering it and giving him something to hope for. But this shouldn’t be mistaken for a hopeful film. Dae-su is also contrasted with the main villain of the piece, played by Ji-tae Yu, who is as smug a snake as can be found. Where Dae-su is barely-restrained violence, Lee Woo-jin is the picture of villainous serenity — but as the incarceration was his own form of revenge, there is just as much turmoil beneath the surface.
It is extremely difficult to discuss Oldboy in any depth without spoiling critical plot information. The brief overview above is as much as I feel can be said without weakening the impact of the surprises in store for those who watch it for the first time. I will say the film is very well directed, with both fight scenes and conversational scenes playing out in interesting ways. The dialogue (at least in the subtitled version) is natural and interesting. And the actors are all very convincing in their roles, most particularly Min-sik Choi, who has the most challenging role as Dae-su.
Recommending the film, however, comes with a very big caveat. This is not a film for somebody who is squeamish to any degree about anything. It’s brutally violent, with many scenes that are bound to elicit a cringe from even the sternest viewer. There are a few scenes that are apt to make a person gag as well. And the revelations about Lee Woo-jin’s motives and machinations are horrifying in a way that is best compared to a Greek tragedy. The viewer’s mind is inclined to rebel against it as much as Dae-su’s does. Despite all this, however, if one can tough it out, it’s a superbly crafted film.
I can’t imagine wanting to watch a film this dark a second time, which raises questions about seeing the remake (though it’s already known to have at least a few deviations from the plot, which would probably be for the best regardless of how dark the story is.) But it was a very good film for watching once.