Oldboy (2005)

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 05/30/05 23:30:54

"South Korean cinema at its best. A must see."
5 stars (Awesome)

Based on a Japanese manga written by Minegishi Nobuaki and Tsuchiya Garon, Chan-Wook Park’s "Oldboy," an ultra-stylish, ultra-violent crime/revenge melodrama, won the Grand Jury Award at the Cannes Film Festival. To just call "Oldboy" a “crime/revenge melodrama,” however, does a disservice to Park’s singular accomplishment, an accomplishment driven by archetypal, mythic forces. From "Oldboy’s" opening moments, with the titular character, his face hidden in shadow, dangling another man from a skyscraper, Park’s film demands, and ultimately obtains, our (almost) complete sympathy for the central character, a man driven by vengeance for acts unknown by jailers unknown.

Park’s film follows the central character, Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) from married salaryman to hardened, unstable prisoner, to an unlikely parole and its violent aftermath. From the moment he exits a police station after being arrested for drunken behavior, Dae-su Oh is plunged into a Kafkaesque nightmare. Kidnapped by unknown assailants, he awakens in a cell. Dae-su Oh’s kidnappers have constructed a private prison for Dae-su Oh, with no possibility of parole. His jailers fail to inform him of his “crimes” or the intended length of his punishment. His cell has one, and only one connection, to the outside world, a television set. Dae-su Oh begins to keeps a prison journal, listing all the people he may wronged in his previous life. His jailers enter his room only after he’s been anesthetized (via knockout drug). Only the desire for vengeance keeps him alive and focused. He begins to train, awaiting the day of his release or escape.

After fifteen years of imprisonment, Dae-su Oh is released. Awakening on a grassy rooftop, Dae-su Oh encounters the man from the first scene, closing the temporal loop. In the first scene, Dae-su Oh appears to be torturing the man. Instead, we now learn that Dae-su Oh is, in fact, saving the man, who intends to commit suicide. A free man in new clothes, the slimmed-down Dae-su Oh finds himself drawn to a sushi restaurant, the “Mediterranean,” where he encounters Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang), a sushi chef. He receives a phone call from his kidnapper, who vaguely alludes to a deadline, which expires in five days. In probably the most difficult scene in a film overflowing in difficult to watch scenes, Dae-su Oh orders something raw, something alive, to eat (no, no special effects were used in the scene). Passing out, he awakens in Mi-do’s apartment.

From there, Oldboy follows what appears to be conventional path, with Dae-su Oh discovering and tracking down clues that will inevitably lead him to the kidnapper (and why the kidnapper imprisoned him for fifteen years). Bent on vengeance, Dae-su Oh is less than sympathetic. He’s not above using brutalizing violence to obtain the answers he needs. But even as his desire for revenge seems to consume, Mi-do presents a tantalizing alternative, a new life free of violence. He, of course, chooses otherwise, or is it that someone else is choosing for him? Park litters Oldboy with clues that point to several different alternatives. Ultimately, however, the kidnapper answers Dae-su Oh’s questions, but not before asking another, unanticipated question, which in turn leads to a startling, surprisingly moving, if nonetheless violent denouement.

In what can be best described as a tautly paced, well-structured film, Park risks losing the audience only once, when he reveals the reason for Dae-su Oh’s imprisonment (we learn the identity of the kidnapper earlier in the film, but his motivations remain murky). Park sends Dae-su Oh into an explanatory flashback (with Dae-su Oh confronting an earlier version of himself). On first view, he reason for Dae-su Oh’s imprisonment appears banal, a minor slight turned into a life-transforming event (for the kidnapper), but Park teases out the consequences into something much larger, implicating both Dae-su Oh and the kidnapper, and ultimately, the kidnapper’s hidden plan, that creates what his kidnapper refers to as a “bigger prison” (i.e., the prison Dae-su Oh carries inside himself), a bitter dilemma that helps to elevate Oldboy above the level of a standard, if stylish, crime/revenge melodrama.

Stylewise, Park shows himself to be a technically accomplished, assured filmmaker, rarely indulging in style for style’s sake, but instead using style, e.g., a combination of cinematography, production/art design, and editing, to underscore the gradual unfolding of the narrative. Even when an “excess” of style is evident, as in a bravura fight scene inside a corridor (the camera flattens the action, tracking left to right), or in the vertical wipes used to indicate a change in location or even the passage of time, Park’s direction stays closely focused on the central character and the mystery surrounding him.

Where audiences might object, however, is in Park’s use (or overuse) of violence. Although most of the violence occurs off screen, there are several, eye-averting scenes, including one scene that plays out as a homage to "Marathon Man." Park may be, in fact, interested in pushing the extremes of violence for an underlying, moral purpose: to show, in graphic fashion, how violence, for both the victim or the perpetrator, corrodes the human personality, degrades identity, and ultimately, results in a loss of humanity. Significantly, Park ultimately gives Dae-su Oh a path out of violence, but only through the loss of memory.

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