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Review © Alex Apple, 2004.

Directed by Park Chan-wook, 2003, 120 min. starring Choi Min-sik, Yu Ji-tae and Kang Hye-jeong.

Imagine a parallel criminal justice system. A system where anyone with a grudge and sufficient cash can imprison another, secretly, without trial, for years. Prisoner's insanity? That'll be an optional extra, sir, along with hypnosis, tasteless wallpaper, bizarre art and a TV. Fifteen years for the offender, sir? Not a problem. Will that be cheque or credit card? That's the basic premise of Park (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance) Chan-wook's Oldboy, probably the most celebrated movie to come out of Korea in 2003. There's a hell of a lot of hyperbole flying around about the film at the moment. After all, it won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2004, and only narrowly lost out to Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 for top honours, so it must be close to genius, right?

Frankly, it depends on your viewpoint. Certainly, it's as stylish as any movie we've seen coming from Korea, although at times there are clear echoes of Miike's Ichi The Killer. And, if you've never seen an extreme Asian revenge flick, Oldboy – a take on the Japanese manga of the same name - is as good a place to start as anywhere.

Synopsis

On a drunken night out with a friend, Korean businessman Oh Dae-su gets arrested for disorderly conduct and causes a scene down at the station. On the way home, he rings his young daughter, before mysteriously disappearing while his friend's back is turned. When he awakes, he finds himself in what appears to be a hotel room – complete with dodgy-looking wallpaper, ensuite facilities, weird and somewhat disturbing art on the walls, and a TV.

Except, it's not a hotel room, as he can't get out. Why he's there, he doesn't know. Food is shoved through a hole in the securely bolted metal door, and periodically gas is piped into the room so that his personal hygiene can be attended to by the warders. On the TV news he sees a report that he is the prime suspect for the murder of his wife. As weeks, months and eventually years pass, Oh Dae-su slowly loses his mind. The thought of ants crawling out of his skin and onto his face plagues him for years. Carefully, he embarks on a rigorous training schedule, tracing the outline of a man on the wall and pounding it with his fists until he has huge calluses on his knuckles. He's also found a way out – slowly, he carefully carves his way through a wall until he can stick his hand through the outside wall to feel rain for the first time in over a decade.

As he makes his escape, Oh Dae-su encounters a tramp who gives him a mobile phone and tells him he must investigate the circumstances of his incarceration. Immediately, he enters a sushi restaurant and recognises the chef, Mi-do, as a minor TV celebrity cook. As she provides him with raw, live squid, he has a phone conversation with someone unknown to him who calls to say he knows something about his imprisonment, eats the squid somewhat messily, and falls unconscious.

What follows is his investigation as to why he spent the last fifteen years locked up, coupled with the search for his daughter, an intense love affair with Mi-do, and a growing, deep-seated need for revenge. Who is the mysterious man who is tracking him? Where was the prison where he was held? And was he actually allowed to escape?

The maxim "if you've seen one, you've seen them all" could well be applied to Oldboy – there's little to distinguish this from other revenge movies like Lady Snowblood, Tarantino's Kill Bill or even Cape Fear. What Oldboy does try to be is a dialogue on the nature of right and wrong, trying to blur the lines between what is normally perceived as being legitimate and one person's interpretation of it. But then, isn't that, again, what every revenge flick has at its heart? In Kill Bill, The Bride seeks Bill out to gain retribution for whatever happened at her wedding; in Lady Snowblood, Meiko Kaji's amoral portrayal of the title character equally blurs the line between right and wrong. Hell, there's even a revenge element to Kitano's Zatoichi – although perhaps over a more clear-cut issue.

It must be said Choi Min-sik's performance of Oh Dae-su is exemplary; he's totally believable as the borderline insane lead, torn between his need for vengeance for his family and his lost life, his love for Mi-do and his bewilderment at the Kafka-esque situation he finds himself in. He holds himself well in the fight scenes, not least the astonishing one-shot affair where Oh Dae-su dispatches dozens of paid goons in a corridor. Kang Hye-jeong is rather sappy as Mi-do, never truly convincing in her role which, to be frank, is rather less than fully fleshed-out in any case.

Part of my problem with Oldboy is the gimmicky direction. While, without a doubt, the stunning first twenty minutes are some of the most deliberately disorientating cinema you'll see in a while, Park Chan-wook just can't keep up with the pace and steadily – albeit with a few exceptions, like the stunning one-shot fight scene midway through – the movie becomes bogged down in derivative cinematic cliché.

In terms of plotting, once the initial shock and confusion of Oh Dae-su's incarceration has faded, the film shifts direction into whodunnit territory and, once that angle is exhausted and the revenge element threatens to kick into gear, the narrative drive of Oldboy just, well, stops. Yes, there's the inevitable confrontation between "good" (Oh Dae-su) and "evil" (Lee Woo-jin) which is brutal but strangely muted. The entire sequence though seems tacked on, artificial, designed just to tie up the loose plot ends, coupled with a bizarre act on Oh Dae su's part, completely turning the entire situation on its head – it's as if the final chapter of the movie was created just to tie up the loose ends and provide a "happy" ending of sorts.

Looking at this film from a perspective of "Asian Extreme Cinema", where the concept of a revenge motive is not new, Oldboy tries to be stylish, using split-screen, fast editing, unnatural lighting and cartoon violence. But this is nothing novel: Ichi The Killer was probably the first to go down this route with the requisite budget to back it up. And while a few scenes are difficult to watch – notably, the DIY dentistry torture scenes with no anaesthetic and a claw hammer as extraction tool – and there's buckets of blood, there's no new ground being broken here.

On the other hand, for people who haven't seen a movie such as this already, Oldboy is probably quite a good place to start, not least because the violence isn't too graphic, the plot not too confusing, the characters and their motivation fairly clear-cut, the direction not too off-the-wall, the resolution not too confusing. Sometimes the whole movie is like a beginner's guide to Asian extreme cinema, which is no bad thing, of course.

I guess what irks me the most about this film is it's not particularly individual – it's as if it's a "best of" film, compiled from bits of artistically and commercially successful movies released over the last three or four years. OK, so there's no Sadako-esque malevolent spirit (a first, as most extreme and/or horror movies emanating from south-east Asia seem to have had one in the last five years or so) but that's about it. Torture scene? Check. Lots of fighting? Check. Lead character looking to explain something weird and screwy in his life? Check. Internet stalker? Check. Nasty crime boss, complete with tough sidekick? Check, check. Slightly odd ending, in the snow? Check.

Maybe I've seen too many movies now for this site, so that any movie I see will have similarities to another. But Oldboy just seems to have nothing unique about itself other than a sterling performance from Choi Min-sik as Oh Dae-su. He's the best thing about the entire film. The rest of the movie just washed over me, never truly entirely drawing me in. Emotionally uninvolving, Oldboy nevertheless is a competent twist on the now standard revenge theme. Don't get me wrong, this is a good movie, yet irritatingly less than the sum of its parts.

Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment value: 7/10
Chills: 0/10
Violence: 7/10 - some stunning fight scenes, and a gruesome torture scene for dentophobics to avoid
Sex: 3/10 - but only in a really perverse sort of way
Oh Dae-su's hairdresser: on holiday
Seen it all before?: 9/10

Films in a Similar Style: Kill Bill, Inner Senses, Cape Fear... pretty much any revenge flick you've ever seen

***Worth watching, but not the second coming it's widely trumpeted to be***

Oldboy Wallpaper
please note: the actual paper does not have the Snowblood Apple logo on it.

You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2004

Snowblood Apple Filmographies

Park Chan-wook
Choi Min-sik
Yu Ji-tae
Kang Hye-jeong

Links

http://www.kfccinema.com/reviews/drama/oldboy/oldboy.html - KFC Cinema go a little overboard in my opinion, but hey, it's a different point of view
http://www.opuszine.com/movies/review.html?reviewID=265 - nice review from Jason Morehead
http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr/interviews/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1000552276 - Interview with Park Chan-wook about his work and Oldboy in particular
http://www.festival-cannes.fr/films/fiche_film.php?langue=6002&id_film=4182985 - scenes from the Cannes film festival
http://www.hancinema.net/korean_Choi_Min-sik.php - digest of Korean newspaper articles (in English!) about Choi Min-sik and Oldboy
http://english.chosun.com/w21data/html/news/200311/200311090016.html - Interview with Choi Min-sik about Oldboy



this review (c) Alex Apple, 2004. all other text and webdesign (c) 2002, 2003, 2004 M. Apple Collingridge, A. Collingridge, Larry D Burns. All characters, situations and images remain the property of their respective owners. The text and webdesign of this site may not be copied, reproduced, mirrored, printed commercially or ripped off in any other way. Do not hotlink directly to images hosted on this site.