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.
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
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
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
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
Entertainment value: 7/10
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
***Worth watching, but not the second coming it's widely trumpeted
please note: the actual paper does not have the Snowblood Apple
logo on it.
You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600]
Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2004
Snowblood Apple Filmographies
- KFC Cinema go a little overboard in my opinion, but hey, it's
a different point of view
- nice review from Jason Morehead
- Interview with Park Chan-wook about his work and Oldboy in particular
- scenes from the Cannes film festival
- digest of Korean newspaper articles (in English!) about Choi Min-sik
- Interview with Choi Min-sik about Oldboy