Language: Korean; Director: Park Chan-wook & Cast: Choi Min-sik, Yu Ji-tae, Kang Hye-jeong, and Yun Jin-seo; Runtime: 120 min & Release date: November 2003
Watching this sucker-puncher of a movie in the home theatre, I felt like an old safari hand gazing in a mixture of ecstasy and awe at a Manchurian tiger sauntering out of a bamboo grove and locking its yellow-green eyes on mine.
It is a rare thing these days that a motion picture transports me back to the times that turned me into a lifelong film fan of Park Chan-wook. This film is based loosely on the Japanese manga of the same name written by Nobuaki Minegishi and Garon Tsuchiya.
Oldboy is the second installment of The Vengeance Trilogy, preceded by Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and followed by Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.
The film won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and high praise from the President of the Jury, director Quentin Tarantino. Critically, the film has been well received in the United States, with an 80% “Certified Fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Film critic Roger Ebert claimed that Oldboy is a “powerful film not because of what it depicts, but because of the depths of the human heart which it strips bare”. In 2008, voters on CNN named it one of the ten best Asian films ever made. A remake with the same title was released in 2013 in the United States.
Just when I felt in my bones the pleasures of discovering a spoke of Korean language and showed the things I had never seen before, yet did so in the manner that was also deeply familiar, because it was so solidly grounded in the idioms and conventions of the cinematic works that had come before it. A film that gives me the same sense of shock and pleasure that I felt when I saw Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) or Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) for the first time in my life. Old Boy is one such film, sometimes thought to have become extinct in this age of mobile phones and video games. We generally watched the film of ‘whodunit’ and ‘howdunit’, and here this mystery plot is that of “whydunit.”
Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-shik), a grumpy businessman with a wife and a toddler daughter, is kidnapped by a group of gangsters. It turns out that they operate a private prison, and someone has paid them an astronomical amount of money to incarcerate him indefinitely. Compelled to rusticate for years and years inside a dingy, dark cell, with fried dumplings his only choice of menu, Oh is overcome with the desire for revenge. However, just when he is about to break free from his prison, he is dumped into the street. He hooks up with a young female sushi chef Mido (Kang Hye-jeong, the teenage guide from Nabi: The Butterfly), to locate the man responsible for robbing him fifteen years of his life.
Choi Min-shik, looking like a mangled lion with a hyena-chomped black mane, gives the most electrifying performance of his career. His role runs the gamut from the Lee Marvin-like taciturn heroics of a seventies crime thriller to the spectacular implosion of a broken man, pitifully wailing and literally licking the shoes of his enemy, and everything in between. The film’s final image, Choi’s vacantly joyful, yet infinitely sad smile, will etch itself into your retinas and refuse to fade for a long, long time. Yu Ji-tae uses his lean, equine physique and contemptuously bland voice to illustrate an almost surrealistic character, part a villain in a James Bond movie, part a Greek God fallen from Mount Olympus and releasing his pale furies against the mortals. The movie’s real acting revelation, however, may well be Kang Hye-jeong, at turns dangerously sexy and achingly vulnerable. There is little doubt that this role will launch her into stardom.
One could easily compile a book analyzing shot by shot the techniques used in Old Boy, its multiple parallels, extravagant leaps and surgically precise abbreviations. There is something ingenious, interesting or at the very least eye-catching in practically every shot of the film. The dialogue is also amazing, the previously unheard-of Korean that somehow combines the rhythm of Bond-film one-liners, the tone of lyrical poetry and the dry wit of the narrations in a hard-boiled crime novel, arch and fluid one minute, pitiless and cutting to the bone the next.
Old Boy is definitely not the kind of film that can win the endorsement of every viewer. Its violence, while not as unblinkingly brutal as in Sympathy, is still disturbing enough to generate an NC-17 rating if turned over to the MPAA.
In the end, though, even its excesses and manic quirkiness are part of Old Boy’s design. Unwatchable ugly and breathtakingly beautiful, gut-wrenching and delicate, heartbreakingly emotional and coldly manipulative, mind-bogglingly entertaining and almost arrogantly artistic, Old Boy is a mass of contradictions that nonetheless coheres as a whole. It is unclear at this point whether the movie can eventually claim the position of a world-class masterpiece, but one thing is certain for me: Old Boy is without doubt the most purely cinematic (both in form and content) piece of work, the truest motion picture from South Korea