Oldboy (2003)

Oldboy2003-PosterI 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.

Rating: 4 Stars

About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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27 Responses to Oldboy (2003)

  1. ckckred says:

    Nice review. It really is a very highly stylized movie though very dark. I’m looking forward to the remake.

    • Nice to see there’s at least one fan who isn’t put off by the idea of a remake. Hopefully Spike Lee can put his own spin on it while still maintaining the level of quality.

  2. Mark Walker says:

    Excellent write-up Morgan. Such a great movie. It’ll be interesting how the remake Pans out but I doubt it’ll touch the original.

  3. CMrok93 says:

    Nice review Morgan. It’s one of those movies that blew me away right as soon as I saw it. Hopefully this remake isn’t too shabby neither.

  4. Great post 😀
    one of my favourite films! Choi Min-sik, the lead actor, is amazing. If you liked this I recommend I Saw the Devil! Korean films are brilliant, well worth watching more of!

  5. Yup, tough film to stomach, but still undeniably great at the same time. I can attest to not wanting to see it again, LOL. I own it on Blu, but its only been given the one watch…

  6. Great look at this one, Morgan. If you get the chance, I would highly recommend checking out the other two films in this Vengeance trilogy — Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance. Both are just as good.

  7. Good review, what do you think of the remake getting made?

    • I can see why it’s one that they wanted to remake… like a lot of foreign films, it’s good and has a premise that translates easily, but some of the cultural idioms don’t necessarily translate as well. I generally consider foreign films “fair game” for remakes for this reason.

      That said, I’m undecided as to whether I’d want to actually watch the remake. I’m sure the story will be at least somewhat different (for one thing, Elizabeth Olsen’s role is apparently as a case-worker, not a waitress), but I’m also sure it’ll wind up being about as dark. I’m not sure how enjoyable it’ll be to watch a film that dark when you already suspect the shock factors.

  8. Tyson Carter says:

    Nice write up Morgan. One of my favourite films, along with I Saw The Devil this is the pinnacle of work coming from Korea. Dark but so worth the watch.

  9. Nice review, caught this one Netflix a couple weeks ago. Intriguing story and great acting, but I didn’t care much for the style. Definitely worth the watch though for anyone that wouldn’t get too squeamish.

  10. Morgan, glad to see you got a chance to give this one a watch. My second favorite film involving the use of a hammer after Drive.

  11. Nostra says:

    It is a good introduction to Korean cinema. Don’t know if you have checked out other Korean movies by now, but you should try more of them, there are a lot of great ones available.

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