Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy is a phenomenal film. A devastating meditation on vengeance initially disguised as a revenge thriller, Oldboy is disturbing, exhilarating, terrifying, and more. Chan-wook Park deftly juggles the tone of this film, all the while carefully building towards his final aim. Of course he couldn’t have done this without the help of his brilliant cast. Choi Min-sik, who plays the main character, Oh Dae-su, wonderfully sells his transformation from bumbling coward to violent avenger. His foil in the film is Yoo Ji-tae, who plays Lee Woo-jin a character sure to go down in film history as one of the greatest of cinema’s villains. These actors in the hands of Park Chan-wook’s direction and reading from Park Chan-wook, Hwang Jo-yun, and Im Joon-hyung’s script create something truly wonderful.
The film starts with Oh Dae-su drunkenly attempting to get home in time for his daughter’s birthday. He is abducted from the middle of the street by a mysterious figure with an umbrella. He awakes imprisoned in a hotel room. He keeps track of time with a television in the room. He lives off the deep-fried dumplings his captor’s feed him. He stays fit shadow boxing, preparing for eventual freedom. He uses an extra stainless steal chopstick to slowly dig through the wall behind his bed. He tattoos a tally mark on his wrist for every year gone by. By the time he’s reached fifteen tally marks he’s a few months from escape. As if on cue he’s hypnotized and released. This starts an elaborate game between him and his captor. Oh Dae-su meets a kind sushi chef named Mi-do and enlists her aid in his quest to discover the identity of his captor. Along the way he’s forced to question what his devotion to revenge will mean in the long term.
Most of the film feels like a simple revenge movie. Oh Dae-su, dressed in a slick suit, tries to track down the reason behind his imprisonment, while taking some revenge along the way. Oldboy definitely makes it’s deeper philosophical concerns clear, but partway through the movie switches it’s concerns a little bit – it stops being a revenge movie and becomes a desperate mediation on the psychological toll of revenge. This switch gets pulled when the Twist arrives. I really recommend not reading about the twist if you haven’t seen the film. While reading about it won’t spoil some of the effect (because seriously, that seen is intense no matter what) you’re really going to get more out of it going in cold.
Park Chan-wook’s movie toys with creating wonderful moments of discomfort. There are a few scenes reminiscent of, say, Django Unchained – brutal violence entirely created via anticipation. These are the kinds of scenes that make viewers hide behind their hands, dreading the imminent teeth-pulling. Yeah, there’s a lot of teeth-pulling in the movie. With a hammer. These are actually the easier of Chan-wook’s gleefully uncomfortable moments. The worse comes with the twist. If the other scenes were the director toying with the audience the twist is a brutal gut-punch. It leaves you gasping, horrified, and vaguely nauseating. If there’s one complaint to be levied about this movie it’s that the twist and surrounding scenes are SO powerful that the film’s denouement has little effect. The audience is left so exhausted from the twist that nothing afterwards really lands to it’s full effect, despite there being a wonderfully ambiguous ending.
Enough dancing around it. From this point on there are SPOILERS. You have been warned. (Feel free to skip to the last paragraph.)
Hey guys. Those of you reading this are willing to risk spoilers right? Good. This movie is really great, but it’s made so much better by the twist. The twist is well hid, there’s some ingenious misdirection at play in Oldboy. The audience is completely focused on why Lee Woo-jin would want to imprison Oh Dae-su and it keeps you from wondering about how Lee Woo-jin is manipulating Oh Dae-su. When we finally find out the reasoning (Oh Dae-su started the (true) rumour that Lee Woo-jin was sleeping with his sister, this led to Lee Woo-jin’s sister committing suicide) behind Lee Woo-jin’s vengeance it falls a little flat. Sure it’s fairly gross, and well presented, but it’s hardly unexpected. It falls fairly short as a mystery, there’s no misdirection, no real hints before the discovery, just very subtle foreshadowing and one really obvious clue. When Oh Dae-su reveals his discovery to Lee Woo-jin it is merely confirmed and clarified. The twist comes when Woo-jin reveals he’s been manipulating the situation from the beginning. He reveals that Oh Dae-su’s new love, the woman who’s been helping him and sleeping with him, is Oh Dae-su’s daughter.
Choi Min-sik gets another chance to show off his acting chops with this revelation as Oh Dae-su is irreparably broken by this information. Here strikes the most uncomfortable scene in the film, Park Chan-wook doesn’t simply stab the audience in the gut with this twist, he slowly turns the knife. Oh Dae-su drops to his knees, begging Lee Woo-jin not to tell Mi-do. He begs like a dog, wags his tail, promises to be Woo-jin’s bitch. He cajoles and threatens. He cuts off his own tongue as an offering. Watching this tough, badass character we’ve been so invested in suddenly completely collapse, suddenly transform into a snivelling wreck, is unbelievably affecting. Lee Woo-Jin’s kindhearted smile and stomach-churning laughter through the scene is horrifying. When Lee Woo-jin concedes to Oh Dae-su’s request he can’t resist torturing him a little more. He leaves as an audio recording of Mi-do and Oh Dae-su having sex plays. Lee Woo-jin steps into an elevator and blows the top of his head off. It’s hard to tell if this is the ultimate act of vengeance – a preventive method to keep Dae-su from getting vengeance – or if Lee Woo-jin just knows there’s no life left for him now that his revenge is complete.
The entire film is filled with little philosophical touches that perfectly texture the themes at play. Things like Oh Dae-su’s first free meal – he inaugurates the start of his vengeance by consuming a living creature (the actor was actually Buddhist, so this scene freaked him out), which feels about as symbolic a gesture as they come. Philosophical details and character details blend together brilliantly. Oh Dae-su’s ogling of occasional women, inability to swallow dumplings, and more work together to create a wonderfully rounded character. This is all compounded by some intensely clever direction. The opening sequence, for instance, is told out of chronological order to justify narration. Later narration pops up again, but in a wildly different tone of voice. Turns out it’s someone even later on reading a description of the events. Seriously guys that’s enough to make me jealous, let alone things like the brilliant one-take fight scene:
The entire movie just feels like perfect layering. Each new scene brings new details, new characters, new breathtaking scenes. All the while subtly misdirecting the audience in preparation for what is surely one of the all-time great cinematic twists. The movie has it all – great cast, great script, and great direction. It hardly seems necessary to remake it, other than bringing it to those narrow minded audience thrown off by *shudder* reading and foreign people. One hopes Spike Lee chooses to do something new and different with the film, somehow justifying the project. As it stands the original Oldboy is a near perfect film. Watch it before the remake.
(When I review movies on my blog I always include a drawing, more for the practice than anything else, and I didn’t want this to be an exception. So below is my Oldboy drawing. Contact me if you want to purchase it.)