Oldboy (2003)

It’s looking like Park Chan-wook’s tremendous revenge-thriller, Oldboy, is set to be remade in 2013 by American film-maker, Spike Lee. I’d go on to say how disappointed I am by another needless remake, but frankly, it’s not going to detract anything from the original, however disappointing or surprisingly good Lee’s rendition turns out.

Oldboy is a film that caught me by surprise. I’d seen the film recurring on lists of ‘best foreign films’ and the like, but didn’t pay attention to the curiosity-catching plot and quite how much it appealed to me. The story follows Oh Dae-su, a man imprisoned for 15 years, with no knowledge of his captor or the reasons behind the new life he lives.

His room has a bed, a desk, a television and a bathroom cubicle. The door contains a slot, large enough for a food tray to slide through. But no slot necessary at eye-level. Daily, an incapacitating gas is released into the room and upon Dae-Su’s awakening, the room has been cleaned, his clothes changed and a new batch of dumplings delivered. He scribbles writings into a journal, ferociously beats his fists against the walls that contain him and uses television to stay connected to humanity in what diminutive way he can; it is simultaneously ‘a clock and a calendar. It’s your school, your home, your church, your friend… And a lover’.

Until one day, a news-piece reveals that his own blood and fingerprints have been found at the scene of his wife’s murder; that he has become a wanted man.

Oh Dae-Su is soon released from his prison and equipped with money, a phone and expensive clothes. He is given five days to seek his revenge. At a sushi restaurant, he meets Mi-do, who offers her sympathy, cares for him and joins him on his search for meaning.

Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep, and you weep alone.

While staying with Mi-do, it quickly becomes apparent that Oh is out of touch with the subtleties of human nature, and immediately desires Mi-do; a much greater lover than he previously considered his room’s television. But his physical infatuation does not deter him from finding his former captor. Years of disciplined physical repetition has left Oh Dae-Su’s body strong, but his mind is focused only on vengeance and a quest for answers, regardless of what brutality it takes to get them.

Oldboy is not violence for violence’s sake, but it is brutal. Punishment is in the film’s core and it is shown with a gritty style that won’t be to everyone’s taste. However, the film is also very authentic. Choi Min-sik plays Oh Dae-Su and is mesmerising; portraying slips into madness and the need for a human connection, as a result of his tormented, cut-off past. Oldboy has many shocking scenes that aren’t in for shock value, but regardless how believable or ‘justified’ it feels for Dae-Su’s savage character, watching and hearing the claw-end of a hammer go at another man’s set of teeth is hard to stomach.

However violent it seems, the film remains artistic at its core. A scene where Dae-Su fights off several of his former jailers, with a knife thrust into his back, is extremely well choreographed to show the overpowering rage and determination that fuels him, while also remaining stylish and fast-paced.

Watching Oldboy, I was caught up in the mystery of the plot and the style of the film, rather than letting the violence take a front seat. The film offers many moments of humour and humanity, which make it feel completely genuine. Oldboy is powerful, not just for the impact of the visceral violence, but more-so because of the depths of human depravity it portrays. Unlike a lot of recent thrillers, this is a film whose stylish, gritty violence feels like it is serving the equally dark plot, rather than vice-versa.

My name is Jonny Stringer and I’m a journalism student in Sheffield with a growing interest in film. I’m no expert, but know that I’d love the chance to write about film for a living, so I’m hoping practice makes perfect.

I’m a big fan of thrillers, dark humour and the odd bit of stylish violence, but that’s not to say I don’t watch the occasional Disney film from time to time.

Like many, I’m aiming to get through the IMDb Top 250, while also keeping up-to-date with upcoming releases but on a student budget, I do tend to lag behind.

I occasionally write about film on http://jonnystringer.wordpress.com/ and can be tweeted at https://twitter.com/jonnyzomg 

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One thought on “Oldboy (2003)”

  1. Such a great movie, I’ve encouraged a number of my friends to watch this whom have all enjoyed it but surprisingly quite a few of them found the ending predictable. I for one, took it at face value and found it tremendously disturbing yet sympathic in a way as to why Oh-Dae Su doesn’t reveal his secret.

    Nice review, well done.

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