Review: Oldboy (2003)

Film: Oldboy (Korean) (2003)

Director: Park Chan-wook

Cast: Choi Min-sik, Yu Ji-tae, Kang Hye-jeong

Asian films, particularly those coming from the eastern side more often than not revolve around revenge. It would not be wrong to say that revenge thrillers have become a prominent sub-genre. Having seen too many of such movies(mostly starring Bruce Lee), I had reached a state where I was consciously avoiding films with protagonists having a personal vendetta against politicians and druglords. I expected oldboy to be on these same lines, but when I heard Tarantino shower special praise upon this movie, it got me curious. And yes, it WAS a revenge film, and I fell in love with the genre all over again!

A man called Oh Dae-su disappears under mysterious circumstances, and we find him in a small room, connected to the world through a television. He has no idea about the reasons for his captivity nor does he know of any person who could do this to him. Later, his wife is murdered and he becomes the prime suspect. He begins to have hallucinations, partly because of his helplessness and isolation, and partly due to the gassing done by his captor. To pass his time, he learns shadowboxing by watching it on the television. He remains a prisoner for fifteen long years, after which he is suddenly set free, on the condition that he has to find the identity of his captor within five days. The rest of the movie follows the efforts of Dae-Su, who in collaboration with a sushi chef Mi-do, tries to find the person who held him captive as well as his motives. But all is not what it seems to Dae-su, and he has to take each step with extreme caution in this labyrinth of trickery and deceit.

Choi Min-sik is perfect in the role of a man who has been transformed from being a simple family guy to a detached, beast-like murderer. In fact, his character transformation forms a running theme in the movie. It is the role of a lifetime and Min-sik gives it his best. His confused expressions in the final scene conveyed all his pain, anguish, relief and love, and made it a memorably ambiguous ending. Yu Ji-tae seemed to be a little too young for his role, but nonetheless, he pitches in a sincere performance. However, his act is completely overshadowed by the performance of Min-sik. Hye-jeong looks sufficiently tender and innocent to evoke sympathy when the final act is played out. Hers was the character I felt for the most as she got needlessly caught between two people hellbent on destroying each other. Revealing anything more about her would mean spoiling the the shock-value of the last half an hour.

Oldboy is definitely not your usual revenge story, although it could very well have been so. The plot is centered on an act of vengeance, but the treatment and execution of the subject matter is unprecedented, and that’s what makes Oldoy rise above its contemporaries. Chan-wook creates an atmosphere of fear and violence which does not let up even once during the running time. Violence, though extremely glorified and stylized, is used as a means to convey the beastliness of Dae-su’s character, and is very integral to the plot. The camerawork is exceptional. The corridor fight sequence is a tremendous cinematographic achievement(it was taken in a single shot!!). Another scene which caught my attention was the ‘quick zoom in’ shot(reverse dolly??) on Dae-su during his meeting with his captor.

Initially, I had my doubts regarding its pretentiousness(stylized movies often tend to be low on substance), but scene after scene continued to amaze me and then the ending, which serves justice in its most poetic form, put all such doubts to rest. The genius of Chan-wook is visible all through and is instrumental in making Oldboy very deeply philosophical in meaning and lyrical in style.  If you are not averse to extreme forms of detached violence on celluloid and are open to exploring bold and unconventional themes, Oldboy should definitely feature somewhere in your coveted collection.

4 thoughts on “Review: Oldboy (2003)”

  1. The camerawork is indeed sensational, I’m totally with you on that. Oldboy is a film that you can’t really say you ‘enjoyed’ as such, due to the storyline, but it is awesome. I think this a strong review, particularly your last paragraph, it could have just been that last one. You do well having a strong beginning and ending, and the middle fleshes out the two. Great stuff.

  2. Thanks a lot for appreciating my review. More such critical appraisal would be welcome for my other reviews.

    You are right when you say that Oldboy cannot be ‘enjoyed’ in the strict sense of the word. Nevertheless, it IS amazing!!

    One aspect that I seem to have ignored in my review is the astounding background score. It is something which is easily overlooked in the midst of all the mayhem playing out on screen, but that does not take anything away from the genius of the composer. The music in the opening scene in particular was plain awesome.

  3. Nice review, doesn’t give too much away which can be the problem with a lot of reviewers :-/
    Great movie, and after reading your review I feel the need to go and experience it again.
    Thanks
    Gaz

  4. Good review, as ‘gazgibbs’ mentioned you you didnt give much plot away for those who have not had the pleasure of this film. I agree this is Choi Min-sik’s best role, he expresses pretty much every emotion.
    I liked your last 2 paragraphs, it sums up perfectly that stylized camera work and editing coupled with a good plot is key and yes the corridor fight sequence is one of the best.

    If we are talking stylish filming with action have you seen Kim Jee-woon’s films such as Bittersweet Life and I Saw the Devil

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