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Chan-Wook Park’s “Oldboy” comes to us on a wave of expectation, having garnered a series of high profile accolades at film festivals around the world, including the Grand Prix at Cannes and several of the Grand Bell awards in its native South Korea. Add to this almost unanimous acclaim from critics and the high standard set by the director’s preceding films (“J.S.A.” and “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”), and “Oldboy” has a hell of a lot to live up to. Incredibly, the film is even better than the hype; it’s a powerful, visceral and intelligent thriller that is undoubtedly one of the best films of recent years, from anywhere in the world.
The plot (based on a manga by Garon Tsuchiya) follows Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi, from “Shiri” and “Failan”), an average, if inconsiderate, family man who is grabbed off the street and imprisoned in a room by unseen captors. Fifteen years later he is released, and sets out to discover the reason behind his incarceration and to take revenge on his mysterious enemies. This is all you need to know, believe me. Although there is far more to “Oldboy” than its narrative, to watch the film forearmed with knowledge or clues to where the story is going would be to rob yourself of one of the most gut-wrenching denouements I have ever witnessed.
“Oldboy” does much to cement Park’s reputation as one of the most exciting and talented filmmakers to come out of Asia in modern times. His direction here is quite masterful, perfectly balancing a deliberate yet compelling story with a showcase of technical trickery. Park’s skill as a storyteller is considerable, keeping the narrative coherent and flowing, yet at the same time leaving gaps that force the audience to think for themselves. This is a refreshing change from the often patronizing simplicity of Hollywood.
Although Park employs a variety of camera techniques and stylish gimmicks, they function seamlessly as part of the film’s painfully human core, and never once lurches into the obvious self-indulgence that plagues modern cinema. His attention to detail is quite incredible, and almost every frame of the film is beautifully composed and rich with reflections of the characters’ twisted psyches. The set design, too, is complex and fascinating, and repeated viewings will no doubt reveal much.
This is not to suggest that “Oldboy” is a slow moving art house piece; far from it, as the film contains several well choreographed action scenes, including a long, violent fight sequence that is particularly exciting and original. None of the action scenes are gratuitous, however, and carry added impact as a result of a well-written script that gives the viewer a great deal of sympathy for all of the characters. Although the film has its heroes and villains to a certain extent, nothing is black and white, and it is apparent that none of the characters are free from sin or some degree of blame. This gives the film a gritty grounding in reality, and the emotional complexity of the script is both fascinating and entertaining.
“Oldboy” as a whole is very violent, with some wince-inducing moments that may be too much for sensitive viewers, especially the infamous live squid eating scene. However, it is the emotional violence that really punishes here, and which is far more likely to haunt the viewer after the credits roll. Despite the film’s grim tone, there is a certain amount of pitch black humor on display, which fits in nicely and never detracts from the overall impact. Similarly, some scenes have an almost surreal edge to them, though again these sit well with the film as a whole.
All of this would be in vain if the performances weren’t convincing enough to handle such challenging material, but thankfully the acting in “Oldboy” is superb. As well as the excellent lead role portrayed by Min-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu (“Natural City”, “Into the Mirror”) and Hye-jeong Kang (soon to be seen in Park’s segment of “Three, Monster”) are wholly believable, handling difficult characters very convincingly.
Do I have anything bad to say about “Oldboy”? No. The film is quite simply a masterpiece of modern cinema, and one that deserves to be watched by a wide audience and not just fans of Asian fare. Sadly, Hollywood has already pounced, deciding that this translates into the need for a big budget remake. I won’t waste time pondering the pointlessness of this, but will instead urge you to seek out the original before another watered down “reworking” dilutes any of “Oldboy’s” considerable impact.
Chan-wook Park (director) / Jo-yun Hwang, Chun-hyeong Lim, Chan-wook Park, Garon Tsuchiya (screenplay)
CAST: Min-sik Choi …. Dae-su Oh
Ji-tae Yu …. Woo-jin Lee
Hye-jeong Kang …. Mi-do