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Oldboy (2005)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 07/16/05 17:59:21

"Laugh, and the world laughs with you. Weep, and you weep alone."
5 stars (Awesome)

Some movies are done in by their pre-release hype, while others rise above it. “Oldboy,” which arrives in the U.S. after months of steamy anticipation stoked by rabid word of mouth and a positive buzz most movies would kill to get, is one of the latter. Rather than be disappointed, in fact, I found that the movie I had been itching to see for a long, long time was, in fact, even better than I had heard. Sometimes movie fans get lucky like this.

The film marks the official arrival of director Park Chan-wook as an internationally important filmmaker. His previous works, such as “JSA” and “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” were hits in their own right in various corners, but the success of “Oldboy” - both with audiences (it won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival) and as a film - lifts Park to a whole other level. This is a breakthrough work on the level of “Jaws” or “Pulp Fiction.”

“Oldboy,” adapted from the Japanese manga by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi, gets transplanted to South Korea, where the story finds drunkard Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) - whose name, he tells us while making a nasty scene in a local police station, means “getting along with people” - kidnapped and imprisoned in a mysterious apartment complex/prison. With nobody telling him why he’s there, he’s left to pass the time, fifteen years of it. Once he’s suddenly and unexpectedly released, he does what he can to find his captors and seek retribution, in blood.

What we get here is a revenge fantasy, but not a pat one. Park and company make no bones about the lack of perfection in their protagonist, and so they deliver a story that’s carefully mixed with the pessimism of a solid film noir; imagine, if you will, a “Kill Bill” in which Uma Thurman gets her ass kicked every few scenes. Yes, things will go right for Oh Dae-su, but then things will go horribly wrong.

The interesting thing about “Oldboy” (well, one of them, anyway) is how it lets its plot be more than merely a quick way to get the audience from one action set piece to another. A movie like this could have easily been a cheap actioner designed for instant thrills, and yet the writers (five of them get screen credit, although not once does this feel like a screenplay done by committee) offer up a clever, richly detailed mystery, a series of thoroughly compelling characters, and above all, a captivating study of a man teetering on the brink of sanity.

There’s something special in Choi’s performance as Oh Dae-su. The fifteen years of solitude have broken his mind, and no matter how composed he may appear, no matter how collected he manages to become in order to uncover the plot, he’s still a raging mess inside. Watch how Choi handles this, allowing his performance to be one that’s always right on the edge. Choi gives us a man ready to explode at any moment - which works wonders, since once he does explode, in those jaw-dropping scenes of no-holds-barred violence, it becomes impossible to take our eyes off the guy.

And everything we get throughout the film, from the calm, collected moments to the deadly outbursts, all lead up to one extraordinary finish, a scene that requires Choi to go all over the map in terms of emotion and sanity. To say Choi gets it just right would be an understatement - these are the kinds of rare performances that come out of nowhere and knock you out.

(Well, to say it “comes out of nowhere” may be a misnomer: Choi provided brilliant turns in Korean efforts such as “Shiri” and “Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War.” So maybe I should’ve seen this coming. Still, his work here tops everything, an unexpected powerhouse performance that will forever be lodged in my memory.)

Balancing out Choi is Yu Ji-tae, who plays the enigmatic villain. The best movie baddies are the ones that are calm, cool, collected, and Yu fits the bill. More than anyone else in the supporting cast (of which there are many fine performances), Yu sticks in one’s mind. His eerily detached persona only makes you want to see more of him. It’s a performance that understands the seduction of evil.

Of course, topping them all, the real star here is Park, whose directorial prowess is truly what elevates “Oldboy” into something far above your average revenge flick. If nothing else at all, watch for the movie’s key sequence: a long tracking shot in which the camera, watching from the side, slowly follows Oh Dae-su up and down a seemingly endless corridor as he takes on what seems like hundreds of enemies. I have never seen a fight scene like this in my life, and I’ve seen a lot of fight scenes. The sheer endlessness of it is enough to make it memorable (those bad guys just keep coming and coming and coming out of nowhere, and just when you think Oh Dae-su’s done for, he keeps going), yet the fact that Park is able to shoot this in just one take, no cutaways, yet keep everything looking disturbingly real, well, that’s impressive filmmaking of the highest order. The realness of it all digs under the skin, and Park refuses to look away.

In fact, Park rarely looks away during all the scenes of intense violence - although, to be fair, there were a few scenes that I’m unable to report what was on screen at all, since I had to cover my eyes out of cringe reflex. “Oldboy” is definitely not for the squeamish, what with its scenes of teeth extraction via claw hammer, of tongue removal via scissors, of… well, perhaps I’ve said too much already, and I’m sorry if this interrupted your dinner.

“Oldboy” is violent, to be sure. But it is also brilliant. It is a grand opera of blood and vengeance, so far over the top that the top can’t even be seen anymore, yet all so skillfully handled that the audience is drawn into the action, not drawn away from it. The buzz was right: “Oldboy” confirms Park as one of the best filmmakers working today.

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