(2003, Chan-wook Park)
“How’s life in a bigger prison?”
I saw Oldboy a few years ago while attempting a similar challenge with IMDb’s Top 250, a challenge that failed because I didn’t have a blog keeping me in check. I didn’t remember much about the film for some reason beyond the live squid eating. Watching it again, I’m amazed, since there’s so much more to Oldboy than that scene. Yes, a squid is eaten alive by the protagonist, but let’s not get too excited about that.
Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) has been plucked off the streets, imprisoned for an unknown reason and left in isolation. Fifteen years pass, and he’s mysteriously released back into the world. Now he vows revenge on those who imprisoned him, and he’s determined to discover the reasons behind his incarceration. Assisting him is a young sushi chef named Mi-do (Hye-Jung Gang), and the two embark on a dangerous mission to seek the truth.
Oldboy is a stunning movie, and I’m baffled as to why I barely remember much of the film beyond the squid-eating the first time round. The film takes what can be a really exploitative and unimaginative genre – revenge fiction – and turns it into something resembling art. Every shot seems to have been crafted meticulously by Chan-Wook Park, and although it has a reputation of being incredibly violent, even the violence is artfully pieced together rather than just splattered across the screen.
The movie appropriately starts off fairly slowly, spending time with Dae-su in his prison as he slowly descends into madness, watching the world pass him by on television (his only link to the outside world) and getting gassed and drugged by his invisible captors. It’s a perfect opportunity to show off Choi’s superb acting skills, as well as building up the central mystery of the movie. At no point during these opening scenes do we find out why Dae-su is there, or who put him there. We just know he’s there.
The mystery deepens and the film really gets going once he’s let out. Why has he been released? Who is this mysterious sushi chef so willing to help him? And why do his captors still seem intent on tormenting him now he’s free? It’s also when the action gets going, especially as Dae-su almost immediately gets into a fight as soon as he’s out on the streets.
The action sequences are spectacular. Scenes of torture are shown sparsely, leaving much to the viewer’s imagination. An extended single-take fight scene between Dae-su and a whole pack of goons in a corridor is genuinely impressive, bringing to mind thoughts of scrolling beat-‘em-up video games. And a scene where a character cuts out his own tongue is gruesome without being over-the-top. There’s a sense that every single bit of action has a necessary place in the movie, and has been meticulously planned out. It’s wonderful.
Of course, none of this would matter if the plot wasn’t worthwhile, and I’m happy to report that it very much is. A shining example of how to properly pace a mystery thriller, it’s tense and the twists and turns are unexpected but satisfactory. The big reveal of the villain’s plans at the climax of the movie is also drawn out in a way that keeps you permanently on the edge of your seat before smacking you with the big twist.
If criticism must be levelled at Oldboy, then this twist can seem a little far-fetched, not to mention the elaborate plan the villain has set up seems a little overly-complicated and unrealistic, and may require some serious suspension of disbelief. But it does all work within the film’s universe. The movie is escapism, so this is certainly forgivable.
Another criticism is that the actor playing the villain seems far too young for his character. Ostensibly close to Dae-su’s age, he looks more like a good 10-15 years younger, which is a little jarring.
But apart from these tiny little criticisms, there is much to like about Oldboy, and is definitely recommended for anyone with even a passing interest in Asian cinema.
Starring Min-Sik Choi, Ji-Tae Yoo & Hye-Jung Gang
Written by Garon Tsuchiya & Nobuaki Minegishi (original story), Jo-Yoon Hwang, Joon-Hyung Im & Chan-Wook Park
Produced by Dong-Joo Kim
Music by Yeong-wook Jo
Cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung
Edited by Sang-beom Kim
Favourite Scene: The aforementioned corridor fight scene was fantastically choreographed, like a cross between a traditional martial arts movie and a scrolling beat ‘em up.
Scene That Bugged Me: As impressive as the tongue slicing was, I’m not entirely sure why it happened. Is this some kind of cultural thing I’ve missed?
Watch it if: Revenge is your favourite dish, always served cold
Avoid it if: You’re morally opposed to live squid eating