STARRING Min-sik Choi, Hye-jeong Kang, Ji-tae Yu, Byeong-ok Kim
WRITTEN BY Garon Tsuchiya
DIRECTED BY Chan-wook Park
2003, R, 119 mins.
**** (out of ****)
Holy potatoes, Batman! That was one helluva damn good flick. Hell that was a bloody brilliant revenge story, as well. Upon first putting the DVD in my player, I knew absolutely nothing about what I was about to experience – all I knew was that it was a moderate seller at my store and has received some pretty positive reviews. I didn’t know I was about to watch something that not only excels in the story level, but also in the technical side of filmmaking, and features characters so real, so emotionally engrossing that the two-hour running time flows by in what seems like mere minutes.
Now perhaps I’m more predisposed to like Oldboy because of the subject matter of revenge, a particular plot of movies that I favor aggressively (The Count of Monte Cristo is one of my all-time favorite books; though, the Guy Pearce movie adaptation was serviceable at best). But even if that was so, director Chan-wook Park has filmed a masterpiece by his own accord - with beautiful, artsy cinematography and actors so fine tuned that it half feels like you’re watching a documentary.
On a rainy night, Oh Dae-Su (Min-sik Choi), your everyday businessman, is captured and imprisoned for fifteen years in a bedroom. With only a television to keep him company, Dae-Su learns about the death of his wife, and that he is the main suspect. In order to keep track of the passing years, he tattoos his body and teaches himself how to fight. Suddenly, fifteen years in captivity, Dae-Su wakes up and finds himself a free man. Famished, he walks into a restaurant recommended by a television station and meets up with a feisty girl by the name of Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang), who immediately grows a liking to him. Together, the two find out why Dae Su was abducted and who is responsible, and with each passing clue, Dae Su comes closer and closer to his revenge.
Something Oldboy is most notable for is its ‘twist’ ending that puts anything M. Night Shyalman to shame. Knowing next to nothing about the flick going in, I wasn’t really thinking it was leading in the direction it ended up taking, but once certain elements of the story were introduced, I was beginning to piece them together. Still, the climax is a woozy, and I am utterly dumbfounded it concluded in such a way – but it is undeniably bloody brilliant, and entirely appropriate, not to mention very intelligent. Kudos to you, kind sirs!
Also, I just want to give a shout-out to the title. I imagine anyone looking at the cover, knowing nothing about the plot, have a huge question mark on their face, "What the hell does 'Oldboy' mean and what the hell does it have to do with this?' Bad me - the cover and story lead me to believe it was a love story of some kind. Yeah, I know, laugh at me all you want. But once certain scenes showed up, and the reason the title is what it is is revealed, it's one of those 'Holy potatoe-fries, Batman!' It's brilliant. The title sums up the entire movie whilst any foreigner to the title will be completely dumbfounded as to what it means. I haven't been this happy and/or proud of a title since The Dark Knight revealed it's true meaning once the credits rolled.
There are many reasons why Oldboy is so well crafted, but there are two in particular I want to mention. First is actor Min-sik Choi (Dae-Su), who best creates his character through expressions. If the entire movie was filmed with the camera stationed at Dae-Su’s eyes, you would still register every emotion and every thought that passed through his head. I was quite surprised by the range Min-sik Choi was able to convey just by, say, the way he brushes back his hair during certain sequences. Give this guy no dialogue whatsoever, his performance would still excel above and beyond.
Second is writer/director Chan-wook Park, who films the movie with such energy that helps the 2-hour running time pass like nothing at all. The camera seems to be in constant motion, which could be a reflection of Dae-Su’s character. One brilliantly filmed sequence – which has no doubt been discussed before – is a three-minute, uninterrupted fight in a hallway, where Dae-Su puts Kill Bill Vol. 1’s ‘House of Blue Leaves’ swordfight to shame. Another thing about how Oldboy was crafted – it seems to relish in the tension. Additionally, there are moments where something rather cartoony happens onscreen that, despite its absurdity, doesn’t take you out of the film; it’s obvious Park is having fun, and that translates well with the audience. I believe I mentioned editing earlier, and if I didn’t, now I am – but I would like to also give kudos to the editing team because everything is so skillfully put together. With everything that happens in the movie, it would be inevitable that the film would drag – but through some miracle, it never does; the movie goes by at lightning speed.
And for those who are interested in watching Oldboy but are turned off by subtitles (such as the theatrical release of Jet Li’s Hero), Tartan Entertainment has also included a English dubbed track which starts automatically. Luckily, the original Korean dialogue is included as a audio option with English subtitles – which are thankfully easy to read (I’m used to the shoddy subtitles work by Classic Media for their Godzilla DVDs). The DVD also comes with a plethora of bonus material I didn’t expect, first and foremost being an audio commentary with writer/director Mr. Park and cinematographer Jeong-hun Jeong.
Armed with an amazing screenplay, phenomenal actors, airtight editing, catchy music, and a twisted although wholly-awesome finale, Oldboy comes highly, highly recommended. And this is coming from a dude who was resilient to watch it in the first place, so doesn’t that say a little something? Hell, I feel like I don't want to finish with this revie and just keep on talking about the movie.
Oldboy has sparked a renewed interest in foreign films for me. I will be actively seeking out Park’s other revenge films (Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) and reviewing them here, as well. In case my proclamation is too subtle, I will blatantly say this to you: locate a copy of Oldboy and watch it immediately; there's bound to be something that anyone will enjoy.