Chanwook Park | 115 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | South Korea / Korean | 18 / R
Perpetual drunkard, but also loving husband and father, Oh Dae-su (Min-sik Choi) is snatched off the street and imprisoned in a shabby bedsit without explanation. He learns that his wife has been murdered and he’s being blamed. His daughter lives, but he doesn’t know where. Then, 15 years later, and equally inexplicably, he’s released. He befriends a sushi chef, Mi-do (Hye-jung Gang), before being contacted by Woo-jin (Ji-tae Yoo) who claims to have been his captor. Dae-su is given just five days to discover why he was locked up. If he succeeds, Woo-jin will kill himself; if he fails, he will kill Mi-do. Dae-su’s investigations lead him to dark secrets, shocking revelations, and violent retribution.
It’s hard to summarise the effect of Oldboy without just watching it. As its premise hopefully conveys, it’s not wholly set in a world you can believe as our own, but nor is it an outrageous fantasy — maybe someone somewhere does run a kind of boarding house for illegal imprisonment? Stranger things have happened. It’s a film predicated on mysteries, but one that doesn’t rely on remaining mysterious — there are answers for every question, you just have to follow the strange path it leads you on and wait for the answers. Try not to get spoilered. (That said, it does have a (deliberately) ambiguous final end, but at least by then it’s answered the questions it started out with.)
Choi is excellent in the lead role, deserving of all the praise he’s garnered. It’s a highly unusual role with a lot of different and sometimes conflicting facets, but he pulls it all off with aplomb. He maintains a sense of mystery and unknowableness throughout, whilst also being a plausible human being in an implausible situation. As his adversary, Yoo makes for an excellent villain: calm, businesslike, always with the upper hand. The final confrontation is a scene to be savoured, calling to mind everything from James Bond to David Fincher (for me, at least) in terms of the villain’s slick lair and the twisted events that unfold in it.
Director Chanwook Park has a sure handle on proceedings, guiding the viewer through a sometimes tricky narrative. There’s also a distinct visual flair, exhibited not least in the infamous corridor/hammer fight sequence. Shot in a single-take from a vantage point that emulates side-scrolling computer games, it’s justly famed. The film as a whole is frequently gorgeously shot by DP Jung Jung-hoon, though at times it’s hard to tell if the DVD encode was obscuring some visual majesty or if it was just the film’s unusual look. May be one to get on Blu-ray, then.
Having garned acclaim in the West, it was inevitable we’d see a Hollywood remake of Oldboy. Bizarrely, Steven Spielberg and Will Smith were attached for a while, but it ended up coming to fruition in 2013 under the guidance of Spike Lee and starring Josh Brolin. It seemed to pass by almost unnoticed. Without having seen it (yet), it’s a little difficult to understand how a remake might work. Some people would say that about all remakes, but personally I don’t think it’s an automatically worthless or artistically unjustified process to engage in. In Oldboy’s case, however, so much of what makes it special, unique and exceptional lies in the direction. So do you copy that wholesale? If you do, what’s the point — just watch the original. But if you don’t, what’s the point — you’re losing a large chunk of what’s special. I guess this is why the US version didn’t go down so well — whichever path it took, it was on a hiding to nothing. I look forward to seeing it to judge for myself.
Oldboy — original flavour — is kinda crazy, kinda disturbed, but kinda brilliant for it. It’s exactly the sort of thing that would never, ever pass “what would make a good film?” focus grouping, for so many reasons, and yet the result is quite incredible.
Oldboy placed 7th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.