This surreal Korean revenge film was a surprise winner of the Grand Jury
Prize in last year's Cannes Film Festival. I have no doubt that
Quentin Tarantino, the year's honorary chairman of the Fest, probably
championed this film, because in several ways QT's own Kill Bill saga
is similar to Park Chan Wook's psychological thriller.
Oldboy is a much darker road than even Kill Bill, however.
By turns disturbing, frightening, disorienting, oddly funny, action-packed,
passionate, confusing and more than occasionally over-the-top, Oldboy
is not a film that you can watch passively. Instead it is almost
like an assault, you are thrust into a position that you do not quite
understand and have to race to keep up with the story as it barrels forward
in disparate directions. It can be nerve-wracking; there were three or
four scenes in Oldboy which literally made me avert my eyes, and I am
not a squeamish person. It can be overwhelming; the hugely sinister
plot machinations and the pure grand guignol reactions of the characters are
at such an operatic pitch that it all often seems super-human.
course, this sense of incomprehension is entirely intended. In fact it
is necessary for the tale they are telling. Because the whole story
is one of a man who is thrown into a hellish nightmare which he doesn't
understand and which he has no control over. Choi Min-sik plays Oh
Dae-su, a loud-mouthed Seoul businessman who disappears one day while he is
on a drunken bender. He awakens to find that he is being held prisoner
in a small apartment. It is not by any means luxurious, however it is
not a simple cell, either. He has some modern conveniences; a
television set, a bed and an area which he turns into a make-shift gym.
Through the television, he learns that his wife has been murdered and that
he has been framed for the crime. Still, he has no idea who is holding
him hostage, or what their purpose is.
day turns into a week, a week into a month, a month into a year, until
finally he has been held prisoner for fifteen years. During the time,
his only contact with the outside world has been the television set.
Literally everything he knows, he learned on TV. He has also
exercised, changing himself from a flabby businessman into a lean fighting
After fifteen years, for reasons he does not understand, Dae-su is finally set free.
He is dared by his captor to figure out who has imprisoned him and why all
of this has been done to him. Dae-su has become hell-bent on revenge,
trying desperately to work out the puzzle, but the captor is always a step
ahead of him. Dae-su falls for a younger sushi waitress who tries to
get the man to forget and run off with her, however he has become so
obsessed with revenge that he tracks down every small clue with fixated
tenacity. Dae-su fights his way through henchmen as he comes closer
and closer to the truth which has alluded him for so long.
Because the film is completely about a character who is baffled by his
surroundings and his circumstances, the film has an odd, but very effective,
sense of dread and mystification. The film also uses savvy filmmaking
techniques to heighten the sense of confused wonder; odd camera angles, slam
cuts, quick flashbacks, strange sets and constant motion keep the viewer off
balance. (Another way this appears to have been done, though this may
have just been the copy I saw, but in many parts of the movie the Korean
dialogue was mixed so low that it was a barely discernible whisper.)
Sometimes, though, the film is hamstrung by its fascinating and tantalizing
premise. What has happened to Dae-su is as horrifying and dehumanizing
as any Kafka-esque nightmare could be, but when you really think about the
logistics, the trouble and the expense which have gone into the fiendish
plot it strains the disbelief. Particularly when Dae-su finds out who
was behind the plot and why; while the person has certainly been through a
trauma it seems like blaming Dae-su for his tragedy is somewhat
off-the-mark, for the man was only a cog in a larger set of circumstances.
And, even if Dae-su was completely responsible, it seems like the punishment
far outweighs the crime.
In the long run, I have to admit that I often respected what Oldboy
was doing more than I completely enjoyed it, but it is one hell of a head
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Posted: March 10, 2005.