Oldboy (2005)

Reviewed By Elaine Perrone
Posted 11/28/04 09:16:58

"Mr. Vengeance delivers another mind-blower!"
5 stars (Awesome)

Like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance before it, director Park Chan-wook's Oldboy is a harrowing tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, a chilling look at the depths to which a human being can sink when his spirit is corroded by the grief of loss and a burning desire for revenge. By turns exhilarating and horrifying, blackly comic and repulsive, Oldboy is the tale of two such men, Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) and Lee Woo-jin (Yu Ji-tae), each of whom is instrumental in propelling his own and the other's soul on a long, sorrowful journey straight to hell.

The film opens with a riveting scene of only a few seconds duration, showing two unidentified men in a precipitous rooftop encounter. Eventually, the movie will loop back to that scene, but there will be no further mention made of it in this review.

Time and place quickly change, and we meet a quite-inebriated Dae-su, who has been hauled into a police station after a night of heavy drinking. After raising a ruckus, but before being thrown into a jail cell, Dae-su is bailed out by his friend Joo-hwan (Chi Dae-han). Stopping to make a phone call en route home, Joo-hwan turns around to find that Dae-su has disappeared, seemingly into thin air.

In the first of Oldboy's stunning ironies, it turns out that Dae-su has been abducted and is being held captive in a cell made to look like a seedy hotel room. Dae-su knows neither the identity of his captor nor the reason for his abduction. His only company in his bleak prison are a television, which becomes his "clock and his calendar"; the journals he writes, in which he tries to fathom the source of -- and reason for -- his predicament, and to atone for his past transgressions; and a purloined chopstick that becomes his instrument for tunneling through his prison.

To keep Dae-su from becoming too alert, his captors periodically pump gas into his room to put him into a stupor. In one of his soporific states, his jailers enter the room, draw blood from his arm, and take away a drinking glass that bears his fingerprints. Unaware, Dae-su learns only later, from his television, that his wife has been murdered and that he is the chief suspect, based upon blood and fingerprints found at the scene.

Resigned to his captivity, Dae-su unsuccessfully attempts suicide. Energized by finding himself alive, and with the help of exercise programs on his TV, he begins to toughen his body for the day of his release, or escape, which he vows will mark the day he vanquishes his unknown opponent.

Fifteen years from the date of his abduction, Dae-su is just as inexplicably released from captivity, still not knowing the reason for his imprisonment or the identity of his jailer, but vowing to "rip [his] whole body apart and no one will be able to find it anywhere because I'm going to chew it all down."

Wandering into a restaurant, where he meets and makes a connection with a lovely sushi chef, Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong), he seals his bond with himself by tearing the head off a live octopus and then collapsing.

Helped by Mi-do, and using his wits and his sense-memories, Dae-su identifies his abductor as Woo-jin, a wealthy industrialist with a long-forgotten connection to Dae-su’s distant past. Woo-jin introduces Dae-su to the next step of his nefarious "game" by challenging him to ferret out the reason for his captivity and the reason for his release. Woo-jin sets a five-day deadline and promises that on the Day of Destiny, July 5, someone will die -- either Woo-jin himself, by his own hand, if Dae-su solves the puzzle, or Mi-do, should Dae-su lose the game.

Based upon a Japanese manga, and scripted by a team (including director Park), Oldboy features a number of plot points that are never fully resolved. It also features a casting choice (Yu Ji-tae) that is at first puzzling for a reason I can't divulge because it would constitute a major spoiler. However, if viewed as an opera or a Shakespearean tragedy -- or the Japanese manga to which Oldboy owes its elements -- one can fairly easily overlook the physical disparity between actor and character, particularly when the acting is as brilliant as Yu's.

Equally brilliant is the acting of Choi Min-sik (Chihwaseon), who also performed his own eye-popping stunts. Credit for the hypnotic music that wafts throughout the film goes to composer Jo Yeong-wook, who crafted his original score using as a basis classic movie titles – among them, Jailhouse Rock, Room at the Top, Cries and Whispers, Breathless, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Point Blank, The Big Sleep, and The Last Waltz. Complementing Jo’s mesmerizing score is the Winter segment of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” which is used to wonderful effect.

Violent and disturbing, Oldboy is far from all tastes and is sure to be vilified by many -- among them, animal rights activists. For those with the heart to withstand the torment, Oldboy is yet another unforgettable and brilliant piece of cinema from Park Chan-wook.

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