Overview: A man is kidnapped and imprisoned for 15 years, then set free with no explanation. 2003. Show East/Tartan Films. Rated R. 120 Minutes.
Korean Filmmaking: Oldboy is the second part of director Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, and a benchmark in the history of Korean film. It brought a specific style of Korean film (films dealing with violent or disturbing subject matter) to a wider audience and served as an introduction to Korean film for many viewers (including this one). I could ask many acquaintances who aren’t avid movie-goers if they’ve watched a Korean film, and many of them would say no. However, if I asked them if they’ve watched Oldboy, many of them would say yes. Since its release in 2003 and Grand Prix Award honor (runner-up) at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, it’s visibility has spread and it has become the iconic Korean film.
15 Years: Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-Sik) isn’t the most pleasant person. In the opening minutes we see this, and while he seems funny, he has traits that make him easy to dislike. He’s an arrogant drunk who just missed his daughter’s birthday. He makes a scene at the police station. He picks a small fight while he is waiting for his friend to pick him up. As he stands outside the station with his friend, he is kidnapped without warning. Dae-Su is locked in a hotel room with no explanation. As he endures fifteen years of unexplained imprisonment we begin to sympathize with him. We are silent observers of his total solitude. Despite his faults, no one deserves that type of punishment. After he is released, fifteen years of anger and mental instability surface and Dae-su cracks. He doesn’t know why this happened and has no one to turn to. He’s given only a few days to discover the identity of the equally deranged culprit, and his existential journey for vengeance leads him down a tragic rabbit hole. He has no way out. His fate was sealed years ago. Dae-su is the classic tragic hero; destined for pain, suffering, and a fate worse than death.
Tragic Performance: Choi Min-Sik is remarkable as Oh Dae-Su. We feel each emotional extreme he touches on with full force. He goes from debilitated hopelessness, to unstable violence, to maniacal laughing, to an unadulterated terror in the blink of an eye. The pure agony and misery displayed on his face throughout the film is torturous.
Twisted: This film is twisted to say the least. It will challenge your mind and then screw with it, throw it in a blender, and spit out a jumbled mess. It is a nail-biting, harrowing experience. As the credits roll, viewers will need a few extra minutes to grasp what is witnessed. The horror is burned into our retinas. Despite this seemingly unpleasant description, revisiting the film is a rewarding experience, until it’s over again and we question the choice to watch. Rinse and repeat.
Final Thoughts: Oldboy is a Korean film masterpiece, its influence and notoriety far reaching. The film is Park Chan-Wook’s showcase; a tragic and deeply disturbing thriller that will leave viewers with a heavy, immense emotional burden. “Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep, and you weep alone.”