Iconic Films: Oldboy

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Min-sik Choi as Oh Dae-su in Park Chan-wook‘s claustrophobic sado-thriller  – Oldboy

Rating: 5.0 out of 5

Korea is fast building a reputation for producing some of the most violent cinema in the world. Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, from the acclaimed Vengeance Trilogy, is no exception: this film is shocking in a way that has not been seen in the Western hemisphere, and it’s psychologically sadistic in the most acute way. This isn’t gratuitous and exploitative violence though, and the horrors that reside within Oldboy aren’t for shock value, but are part of the wider study of the diabolical nature of revenge: Oldboy depicts cruelty and obsession in a grand and classical sense.

We begin the film on a rainy night in Seoul: an inebriated businessman named Oh Dae-su is detained in a police station for being drunk and disorderly. We learn through his ramblings that he is, in fact, a father, and that today is his young daughter’s birthday – he sits there in a pair of angel wings he has bought for her. Oh Dae-su is released when his friend comes to bail him out, and whilst the friend calls home to explain the situation, Oh Dae-su disappears into the middle of the night.

Fast forward two months, and Oh Dae-su is imprisoned in what looks like a cheap hotel room, with a bed, desk mirror, TV and gaudy wallpaper. Three times a day he is brought food which is deposited at a hatch at the bottom of cell door. Once a day, music plays, and valium gas is siphoned into his room – this means it is time to sleep. Sometimes, when he wakes from this gas-induced slumber, his room has been cleaned and his hair has been cut. We don’t know where Oh Dae-su is, or why he is there. Neither does he. He will be imprisoned there for fifteen years.

This routine continues, day after day. He fills journals with accounts of all his wrong doings and makes a list of all the people he has offended in an attempt to locate his captor. Why would someone do this to him? He beats the wall, he alternately rages and pleads with his faceless guards, to no avail. The TV in there becomes his whole life, and in an attempt to preserve his sanity, he trains his body by shodowboxing, and chips away at the wall with a chopstick. Fifteen years later, he finally breaks a small hole through the wall. He concludes that it will be a month until he can escape, but he does not need to wait until then: a few days later, he wakes up in a suitcase on top of a skyscraper.

Once outside, he wanders into a restaurant and meets a beautiful sushi chef, whom he later falls in love with. This meeting is initiated by a most extraordinary scene involving an octopus, which has received much critical interpretation since Oldboy’s release in 2003. Oh Dae-su demands to eat something that  is alive, and an octopus is brought out: he eats it, and passes out. I like the theory that he wishes to consume a live octopus because he has been effectively ‘dead’ for fifteen years – he wants to consume its life. I like this interpretation, and  I’m disappointed to hear that this scene will be omitted from the American remake.

I won’t include any more spoilers, but this is where the film really starts: the sushi chef takes him home, ushering in a long and torturous process of revenge heaped upon revenge. Oh Dae-su goes into the cell a wretched man, pitiful and useless. He comes out utterly consumed with the need to avenge himself on his captor, who in turn, is consumed with the need to avenge himself on Oh Dae-su.

Oldboy forces you into the most extreme recesses of human depravity. Whilst it lacks the physical brutality of Chan’s often overlooked Sympathy for Mister Vengeance, its diobolical plot twists and turns and claustrophobic sadism add a new layer of torment to the genre. The film is relentless – we’d like to look away but we cant; Oldboy grabs you by the throat and stares coldly into your eyes. The plot coils in on itself, painfully exposing layer upon layer until we reach the bitter core: it’s a revenge film of grand proportions, and one of the best and most shocking of its kind.

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22 Comments

  1. Love this movie but it’s extremely disturbing stuff. The first time I saw it, I was blown away and couldn’t get it out of my head for weeks. Outstanding stuff. Great write-up Georgina.

      1. They are a bit tricky to find in the UK/US. Park Chan-wook is making an English debut in March with his new film Stoker, so perhaps he’s coming into the mainstream a bit more. Hope he doesn’t tone it down for Western audiences!

  2. Great movie but it does leave you with a cliffhanger at the end that I still think about sometimes, even to this day. Still, great and wonderful flick that I hope that remake doesn’t bludgeon to death. Good review.

    1. Thanks for reading! Ohh, I don’t have high hopes for the American remake – as much as I like Samuel L Jackson, I can’t see him in the principal role! But I’ll keep an open mind…

  3. I’m pretty sure this was the 2nd Korean movie I’d ever seen, the first being A Tale of Two Sisters. It really opened my eyes to a whole new world of brutal, awesome imagery and storytelling. I can’t (well, don’t want to) believe it’s being remade, but that’s okay since I won’t be forking over any money to see it.

    Choi MIn-sik is equally as awesome in I Saw the Devil.

    1. Hi! Thanks for dropping by! I’ve never seen a Tale of Two Sisters OR I Saw the Devil, I must try and find them. I’ve been meaning to see the first for a while. I agree, I think the American remake is bound to fail – It’ll be toned down for Western audiences I’d imagine. We’ll see!

      If you like Oldboy then I recommend the rest of the Vengeance Trilogy if you’ve not already seen them…. Equally as brutal, and the cinematography in Sympathy for Mr Vengeance is excellent!

      1. Oh yea, I own all of Park Chan-wook’s stuff. He’s one of my favorite directors.

        And yea, the American remake will be toned down. Spike Lee is a really, really weird choice for that.

    1. Thanks for reading! I agree, I saw Spike Lee and thought – nope. I can’t see Samuel L as Oh Dae Su either. Oh well, hopefully the remake will inspire people to root out the original and give that a viewing!

  4. One of my favourite movies… and a great article. What do you think of Stoker? I’m a huge Park Chan-Wook fan but i was disappointed. It looked gorgeous and had a great, off-kilter atmosphere that I was afraid he’d lose in an american movie. But I thought it was a story without consequences or logic… and Matthew Goode was creepy but completely one dimensional. Christ, I’ve turned all negative!

  5. Hi! Thank you for stopping by and commenting :)

    I’m yet to see Stoker (next week, hopefully!) I’m looking forward to watching it, but am disappointed to hear you didn’t think too much of the film as a Chan-Wook fan…I have heard mixed reviews. I think i’ll keep my expectations average and hopefully I’ll be surprised! Would you give it a second viewing?

  6. Ah damn… right, don’t read anything else about it until you’ve seen it for yourself! I’d definitely give it a second viewing. I think my main problem is with the screenplay. Looking forward to hearing what you think once you’ve been to see it.

  7. Great review! A very good read, I just added it to my Netflix queue and will watch it very soon. I’ve never seen it. Thanks!

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