Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 10/9/08.
After the release of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Chan-wook Park had become one of the prominent directors in South Korea as Korean cinema was starting to break out internationally. After two critically and commercially successful features in Joint Security Area and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Park was considered to be one of Korea's finest filmmakers despite criticism for his approach to violence. In 2003, Park created a film that would stir controversy in the years since its release while would also become his most defining moment in his entire career. The second part of Park's Vengeance Trilogy that was preceded by Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and followed by Lady Vengeance, the film is considered a landmark film in Asian cinema simply entitled Oldboy.
Based on the Japanese manga comic of the same name by Nobuaki Minegishi and Garon Tsuchiya, Oldboy tells the story of a businessman who had been held captive for 15 years in a hotel room. When he is released, he becomes vengeful wondering why he was captured as he falls for a sushi chef. Directed by Chan-wook Park with an adapted script written by Park, Jo-yun Hwang, Chun-hyeong Lim, and Joon-hyung Lim. The film is a study of a how man done wrong goes for a quest of vengeance while uncovering why he was targeted and had supposedly wrong someone. Starring Choi Min-sik, Yu Ji-tae, and Kang Hye-jeong. Oldboy is a brutal, harrowing, and mesmerizing masterpiece from Chan-wook Park.
Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik) was captured by a group of criminals where for 15 years, he is held prisoner wondering what he had done. A year into his imprisonment, Dae-Su learned that his wife was murdered and he had been accused of killing her. With his daughter gone and moved to Sweden, Dae-Su has vengeance in his mind where he keeps getting visited by a hypnotist. After losing lots of weight and already planning an escape, Dae-Su is freed where he encounters a suicidal man and stealing a woman's sunglasses. After getting a cell phone and such, he stops by at a sushi restaurant where he meets a young, beautiful chef named Mi-Do (Kang Hye-jeong). After passing out after hearing a phone call from a mysterious man, he is taken to Mi-Do's apartment where he tries to figure out what's going on.
He makes contact with an old friend named No Joo-hwan (Ji Dae-han) who decides to help out along with Mi-Do. After learning about his daughter's whereabouts, Dae-Su decides to enter the building where he was imprisoned as he meets its manager Park Cheol-woong (Oh Dal-su). After beating up several of Park's men and torturing Park, he retrieves a tape leading to more clues where it was he claimed that Dae-Su talked too much which was the reason. After his assault on Park's men, the wounded Dae-Su collapses where he was taken to a taxi by a stranger as he learns that he's getting closer to the man's identity. After returning to Mi-do's apartment, Dae-Su finds the location of the stranger revealed to be Lee Woo-jin (Yu Ji-tae). Woo-jin, along with his bodyguard Mr. Han (Kim Beyong-ok), revealed to be the culprit as he gives Dae-Su a chance to find out why.
When Park and his gang return to try and attack Dae-Su and Mi-Do, they're stopped by Mr. Han as Woo-jin gives Dae-Su five days to figure out the mystery. Dae-Su and Mi-Do flee the city to hide as they become close while discovering about Woo-jin's background. It was revealed that Woo-jin was in the same high school that Dae-Su and Joo-hwan had attended along with Woo-jin's sister Soo-ah (Yun Ji-tae), who had died some time after Dae-Su had left the school to be transferred to a better school. Dae-Su suddenly recalls a memory about what happened with the siblings that led to a rumor that would eventually leave Soo-ah to end her life. After learning some more information from Joo-hwan about Soo-ah, Dae-Su remembers why Woo-jin did all of this. With Dae-Su deciding to confront Woo-jin at Woo-jin's penthouse who brings another shocking surprise for Dae-Su that would prove to be extremely horrifying.
What Chan-wook Park chose to do is reveal the fallacy of vengeance in all of its cruelty and how far anyone is willing to go, over something that happened many years ago. While both Dae-Su and Woo-jin have valid reasons for vengeance but it's Dae-Su who becomes aware of what he had done and know that he did wrong. Woo-jin meanwhile, takes it way too far and what he brings Dae-Su would prove to be horrifying. The screenplay by Park and his co-writers is definitely part-character study, part-suspense thriller with some action and drama thrown into the mix. At the same time, it reveals how careful Woo-jin set things up and how Dae-Su reacts and plays his game.
Park's direction is extremely superb and at times, hard-to-watch. Notably some of the film's violence where Park takes it to high extremes. Especially what the character of Dae-Su does with a hammer, redefining the term Hammerman (sorry M.C. Hammer). The violence is wonderfully staged and choreographed, especially in the use of the widescreen format with great compositions and presentation. Park's direction in drama, especially suspense, builds great momentum with uses of flashback and memory to figure out the mystery. Then when the third act arrives and everything comes to place, that's when the film takes on a brand new level that would leave the audience speechless and uncomfortable. The result is a film that is brutal yet mesmerizing right to the end.
Cinematographer Jeong-hun Jeong does fantastic work with the film's hand-held cameras, lighting staging for the interiors, and gorgeous scenery for the film's nighttime exterior shots in Seoul. Jeong's camera work is exquisite in its exteriors with its use of green, red, and in the third act, black and green for its climatic ending. Some of the film's exterior, notably the epilogue is gorgeous as Jeong's work is brilliant. Editor Sang-Beom Kim does great work in the film's rhythmic, stylish cutting with the use of split-screens and transitional jump-cuts to go from one composition to another in the same place where a character is standing. Kim's editing is truly superb to capture the film's sense of action and drama as it's done with style without resorting to fast-cutting, Hollywood-style editing.
Production designer Seong-hie Ryu does great work in the film's art direction with the dilapidated, colorful look of the prison that Dae-Su stays in along with the hotel room and apartment of Mi-Do. The look of Woo-jin's penthouse is wonderfully slick and rich with a great shot of Seoul at the nighttime. Costume designer Sangyung Cho does great work with the look of the characters with the suit and sunglasses of Dae-Su, the contemporary, short dresses of Mi-Do, to the suits that Woo-jin wears. Sound mixer Seung-cheol Lee does great work in capturing the film's action, location surroundings, and everything to create suspense and drama into the film. Music composer Yeong-wook Jo brings an orchestral, serene flavor to the music while using cuts from other films to play to its drama.
The cast is unique with small performances from Kwang-rok Oh as the suicidal man, Tae-kyung Oh as the young Dae-Su, Yeong-suk Ahn as the young Woo-jin, and Il-han Oo as the young Joo-hwan. In the role of the hypnotist Yoo Hyung-ja is Seung-Shin Lee who is great in her brief appearances a woman trying to put Dae-Su into a weird state of mind. Yun Jin-seo is excellent as Woo-jin's sister Lee Soo-ah, the girl who would be the victim of the tragedy that would lead Woo-jin to claim vengeance on Dae-Su. Oh Dal-su is good as the prison manager Park, who has a memorable scene in which he's tortured by Dae-Su. Kim Byeong-ok is also good as Woo-jin's tough bodyguard Mr. Han while Jie Dae-han is excellent as Dae-Su's old friend Joo-hwan who helps out Dae-Su in the investigation.
Kang Hye-jeong is great as Mi-Do, the sushi chef who falls for Dae-Su as she becomes his accomplice and lover in the investigation. Hye-jeong brings in all of the emotional baggage of a woman who may or may not be trustworthy yet provides the sense of emotional realism for Dae-Su. Yu Ji-tae is great as Lee Woo-jin, the antagonist of the film who seeks revenge for his sister's death claiming that Dae-Su is responsible. Ji-tae brings a great sense of charisma and sinister smugness to the character as his performance is truly divine to watch. Finally, there's Choi Min-sik as Oh Dae-Su, the film's protagonist who starts out as this heavy, rotund drunken man only to become a psychotic, vengeful thing yet built man. Min-sik's performance is a marvel to watch as his character is both a bad*ss and also a man with lots of flaws as he realizes his wrongs and his attempts for redemption. His performance is the heart of the film.
Released in November 2003 in South Korea, the film became a monster hit in its native country. In May 2004, the film made its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival where it was awarded the festival's second-place Grand Jury Prize though jury president Quentin Tarantino wanted the film to win the Palme D'or. The film's international success that followed a release in the U.S. in early 2005 brought the film a lot of attention. At the same time, it brought notoriety when in April 2007, a Korean student named Seung-Hui Cho killed 33 people and wounded 23 at Virginia Tech and eventually himself. Cho was seen having a picture holding a hammer in the same way the character of Dae-Su did despite the fact that Cho had never seen the film. Yet, Park had achieved acclaim as in 2005, he released the third and final part of his Vengeance trilogy entitled Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.
Oldboy is an enthralling, brutal, mesmerizing, and provocative masterpiece from Chan-wook Park. Audiences new to Park's work will see this as a great starting point as well as an introduction to the new wave of Korean cinema. Fans of action films or Asian cinema will no doubt see this as essential though more mainstream audiences might be put off by its extreme approach to violence, sex, and some thematic elements. In the end, Oldboy is an amazing masterpiece from Chan-wook Park that challenges its audience in many ways that it will leave them stunned.
Chan-wook Park Films: (The Moon Is... the Sun's Dream) - (Trio) - Judgement (1999 short film) - JSA: Joint Security Area - Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance - (If You Were Me-Never Ending Peace and Love) - Three... Extremes-Cut - Sympathy for Lady Vengeance - I'm a Cyborg but That's OK - Thirst - (Night Fishing) - Stoker - The Handmaiden - (The Little Drummer Girl (2018 TV series)) - Decision to Leave
© thevoid99 2011