Director: Park Chan-wook
Starring: Choi Min-sik, Kang Hye-jung, Yoo Ji-tae, Oh Dal-Su, Ji Dae-han
Words – Nathan Scatcherd
Oldboy has – in the fifteen years since its release – become one of the prime examples of ‘extreme’ Asian cinema to really be embraced by Western audiences.
Part two of director Chan-wook’s ‘vengeance trilogy’ (preceded by Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and followed by Lady Vengeance), and adapted from Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi’s manga comic book, the film is a twisted, operatic neo-noir revenge thriller possessed of a relentless propulsive energy.
As with many of the best noir films, the story is based on a central mystery to be unravelled. A mouthy businessman named Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is kidnapped by an unknown figure and held in a cell without explanation or human contact. He survives on dumplings and pure rage, at first trying to question his faceless captor as to why he has been imprisoned, then simply attempting to keep hold of his slipping sanity as time marches on. He gradually develops something of a routine to life in his cell, all the while devoting his energy to an escape tunnel, all thought focused on eventual vengeance.
After fifteen years, multiple suicide attempts, and lots of single-minded shadow-boxing, his escape tunnel turns out to be fruitless and unnecessary; he is suddenly released into the outside world with the same lack of explanation surrounding his initial kidnapping. He sets about trying to uncover the reason (and perpetrator) behind his capture, meeting a beautiful young sushi chef named Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung), and… to say anymore would spoil the film’s twists and turns for those who have yet to experience it for themselves. Suffice to say that as the mystery unravels, some very dark avenues are explored, leading up to a hauntingly ambiguous ending.
The film is held together by a furiously committed central performance by Choi Min-sik, in a role which demands a lot both physically and emotionally. Much has been made of the film’s two arguable ‘standout’ moments – Dae-su eating a live octopus (with no CGI – that’s a real octopus being devoured onscreen, which has understandably upset quite a few people, but don’t worry; Min-sik is a Buddhist and said a prayer for the poor creature), and a bravura single-take hallway fight scene in which Dae-su takes on a crowd of goons with a claw hammer.
However, these ‘big moments’ shouldn’t detract from the film’s arguably most impressive, and most subtle, achievement. This is its pacing; the way it perfectly judges the unfolding of a gripping and genuinely shocking mystery, with at least one twist which first-time viewers who haven’t spoiled anything for themselves will surely not see coming, and will be suitably horrified by.