(A quick aside before my review. I watched this movie on Saturday with my dad. I knew their was an English-language remake coming out directed by Spike Lee but for some reason, I thought it was coming out next year, not today. So, this review’s timing is strictly coincidental.)
In Thomas Pynchon’s crowning magnum opus, Gravity’s Rainbow, a high-ranking Allied officer during WWII consumes the fresh feces of a BDSM psychic (and possible German double agent), the rakish hero participates in a graphic orgy and is subsequently given fellatio by a minor, and a German rocket scientist may or may not be having violent sex with his long-lost daughter. 1998’s practically perfect minus one-subplot Todd Solondz feature, Happiness, turns a child molester into a sympathetic creature without shying away from the terrible things he does and one of its heroes jerks off while making angry phone calls to random women.
I bring up these works of transgressive fiction because, in a world where Gravity’s Rainbow or Happiness exist, it’s hard to shock me anymore or to truly get under my skin. The only movie I’ve watched recently that truly unnerved me from a thematic standpoint was the Twin Peaks film, Fire Walk With Me because of the incestual rape content. So, perhaps it’s appropriate then that 2003’s cult classic Oldboy found its way into my viewing rotation as it is without question one of the most disturbing and unflinching films I’ve watched in recent memory.
Oldboy has been heralded as one of the finest exports of Korea’s burgeoning film market and director Chan-wook Park is certainly one of its wunderkinds, but despite Oldboy‘s undeniable ability to get under my skin, it isn’t quite the masterpiece that many believe it to be. Similar to the more recent cult classic Drive, there’s a certain hollowness to the masterful style on display (and a muddled plot that operates on a fuzzy dream logic). And though the film has something to say about the emptiness of revenge, it goes to cartoonish lengths to make a point.
Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) is nobody special. Though he’s a bit of a drunk and a ladies’ man, there’s little else to set this married man and father apart from the crowd. But, after a night of heavy drinking, Dae-su is kidnapped off the streets of Seoul to begin a hell that lasts 15 years. Dae-su’s unknown captors place him in a locked room with nothing but a TV and occasional meals to keep him company, and Dae-su is totally in the dark as to who’s doing this to him or why it’s happening. And, for 15 years, Dae-su stews in his own anger (and insanity) preparing himself to take revenge on those who’ve held him captive and have murdered his wife in the interim.
But just as Dae-su is about to escape on his own, he’s released into the wilds of Seoul (through a giant briefcase on a high rise) with new clothes, a cellphone, cash, and no idea what he’s doing. And Dae-su vows to find the men who locked him up. However, not long after being released, Dae-su meets the beautiful and young Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang), and the two share an instant (but severely disturbed) sexual connection. But there seems to be a link between Mi-do and the men who kept Dae-su locked away for so many years and the already frayed and bordering on insane Dae-su becomes even more torn as he has no idea who he can trust.
I won’t say any more about the plot of Oldboy because I imagine that going into this film for the first time knowing what’s going to happen would ruin much of the shock of the film’s climactic twist (which I predicted fairly early in the film because apparently I’m as fucked up in the head as this film’s screenwriters). So, let me simply say that if you find the first two acts of the film to be unbearably uncomfortable and brutal, just wait til you find out what’s really going on. I imagine any future viewings of this movie will take on an entirely new and even more unpleasant light.
I really can’t stress enough that Oldboy is not for the faint of heart. For some reason, the only thing that I had absorbed about Oldboy before watching it for the first time was that it was a hyper-violent film (it is), and for some reason, that made me assume it was an action film (it most certainly isn’t). Oldboy is a mystery thriller that happens to also deal in gore at unfathomable levels. Clearly, Chan-wook Park is of the Gaspar Noé and Nicolas Winding Refn school of film-making where stylistic beauty has to be matched by an equal amount of brutal carnage. Unfortunately, Park also lacks those premier stylists ability to make any thematic statements beyond the obvious surface.
Oldboy has much in common with another 2003 revenge epic, Kill Bill Vol. 1 insofar as it is a cartoonish revenge fantasy though Oldboy happens to become a cartoonish deconstruction of the cartoonish revenge fantasy by film’s end. There are sequences in Oldboy that turn the old ultra-violence into something that would fit in on a PCP-infused episode of Looney Tunes. And while the film succeeds in making its point that revenge is ultimately a hollow pleasure, the movie doesn’t hammer its point home; it drops a ten-ton nuclear device and then firebombs the surrounding country side to make sure you got the message.
Ultimately, Oldboy is a film for movie-lovers by movie-lovers where one has to be willing to subserve your need for a coherent or complex story to Chan-wook Park’s masterful direction and sense of visual flair. As gut-wrenchingly violent as it is, Oldboy is as well shot as the best Western films, and you can sense the giddy energy that went into the production of the film. So, if you appreciate the high-class “B” movies like Drive or Kill Bill, there’s no reason to skip Oldboy. Just know that you’re getting yourself involved in a brutal Korean take on Titus Andronicus and a certain Greek tragedy that I don’t want to name for fear of spoiling the film.
Final Score: B+