Oldboy (2005)

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/25/05 02:01:06

"Actually Lives Up to (and Exceeds) the Fanboy Hype"
5 stars (Awesome)

Make no mistake about it, the new Korean film “Oldboy” is not a movie for the faint-of-heart. There are things in this film that will shock and stun even the most jaded connoisseurs of kink, twists that will perplex even the biggest know-it-alls and it ends with a mind-bending gut-punch that somehow manages to trump all of the twisted sights that have already been seen. I’m not trying to scare you off from seeing this film–far from it, because this is the rare Asian film import that lives up to the advanced fanboy hype–but I am warning you that anyone expecting an easily digestible cinematic McNugget will doubtlessly wind up perplexed and disturbed by the sights that director Chan-wook Park has chosen to share with viewers. I’ll put it this way: if you have even vaguely contemplated going to see “Miss Congeniality 2,” then “Oldboy” is not for you.

Much of the power of the film derives from the astonishing twists and turns of the plot, so while I promise to tread lightly, some of you may want to check out of this paragraph. The film opens on Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi), an average businessman who goes off on a drunken bender one evening instead of making it home for his young daughter’s birthday. Something happens and when he wakes up the next morning, he finds himself locked away in what appears to be a hotel room furnished with, among other things, a television informing him that his wife has been murdered and that he is now missing and considered the prime suspect. This is bad news, but nothing compared to the fact that the room turns out to be his home for the next fifteen years. At that time, just as suddenly, he wakes up on the roof of a strange building with money, nice clothes and a cell phone. From the latter, Dae-su is informed by a mysterious voice that he is responsible for his imprisonment and that he has five days to figure out who his tormentor is and why this has been done to him. This sets Dae-su off on a frantic search of his past to try to think of whom he could have wronged to deserve such treatment; along the way, he encounters such oddities as a suicidal man who proves to be his first human contact in fifteen years, a sweet sushi chef (Hye-jeong Kang) who provides both support and a shoulder to cry on (among other things), any number of unspeakable secrets and what will no doubt go down as the most unforgettable cinematic sequence involving a squid since “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”

On the surface, “Oldboy” may seem like a film geek cinematic smoothie in which the entire filmographies of Takeshi Miike, Brian De Palma and Quentin Tarantino have been chucked into a blender and pureed. And yet, there is more to the film than giddily grotesque visceral thrills (though there are plenty of those to be had). Chan-wook Park has come up with a doozy of a storyline–one so convoluted and quirky that it comes as no surprise to learn that it scored the Special Jury prize from the Tarantino-led group that judged last year’s Cannes Film Festival, but he has also laced it with plenty of political and social commentary that viewers can take or leave, depending on how they see fit. In plot-driven films like this, the characters are so busy being jerked around by the machinations of the plot that they cease to become interesting as people; here, Min-sik Choi and Hye-jeong Kang manages to come up with three-dimensional characters that you actually care about. As a result, the final scene, which could have simply come off as a meaningless excursion into nihilism, has the kind of genuinely emotional wallop that hasn’t been seen in a film like this since “Blow Out.”

“Oldboy,” like such recent landmarks as “Memento,” “Mulholland Drive” and “Femme Fatale,” takes viewers on a wild ride that, once seen, will not be forgotten soon. Of course, like so many Pacific Rim hits of recent years, it has been scheduled for its own American remake, reportedly to star Nicolas Cage. I can see why someone would want to remake it–stories this strong don’t come along every day–but I can’t imagine that version, no matter what its qualities, having even a fraction of the raw power or impact on display here. Since it is a foreign film, there is a good chance that many of you in America, at least those not near a major city) may find it difficult to track down “Oldboy”; I can assure you, though, that no matter what lengths you have to go through to see, the film is more than worth the effort.

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