Release Date: March 25th, 2005 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Chan-wook Park Actors: Min-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hye-jeong Kang, Dae-han Ji, Dal-su Oh, Byeong-ok Kim, Seung-Shin Lee
man dangles over the edge of a skyscraper, clutching at his white poodle as Oh Dae-su (Min-Sik Choi), shrouded in shadows yet betraying a bitter grimace, grips the man’s tie to prevent him from plummeting. Cutting back to the beginning of the story, Dae-su is bailed out of jail for being drunk and disorderly. On the way home in the rain, he’s kidnapped and thrown into a curious hotel room, enclosed by metal locks with only a single window (blocked with a lighted landscape picture) and a television set. Someone brings him food regularly and, along a similarly fixed timetable, Russian valium gas is released into the room through vents to knock him out. When he awakes, his hair is cut, his clothes are changed, and the room is cleaned.
Two months into his captivity, he’s hysterical and enraged and grasping for answers. Three years in, he’s distraught and fatigued, hallucinatory and desperate for human contact outside of the glowing TV. At the eleven-year mark, he’s well on his way to literally digging himself out through the brick wall, certain that he’s in the city but unsure if he’s on the 52nd or the 2nd floor of the building. It’s ultimately fifteen years before he escapes, but the prison break is not as he envisioned – instead, he’s knocked unconscious and stuffed into a trunk, then abandoned on a weed-filled rooftop.
From here, “Oldboy” becomes an epic mystery as Dae-su struggles to find out why all of this happened to him. His wife was murdered and he was framed for it (during the first year of his imprisonment), his little girl Yeun-hee was adopted by a Swedish couple, he can’t recall his friends and family, and he’s a fugitive with no money or resources. He has no options but to wander the streets, applying a few skills he picked up from observing television programs – namely, a vast knowledge of random trivia and martial arts fighting techniques. He’s given a cellphone by a stranger; he meets his only ally, the sushi chef Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang); and he’s called by his mysterious former captor, a self-proclaimed scholar and expert on Dae-su, who taunts him with vague bits of information as to his identity. Undoubtedly, the unknown man wants Oh Dae-su to find him.
Spellbinding orchestral music, unique framing, “Pulp Fiction”-esque graphics displayed directly onscreen, bloody torture to elegant violin tunes, hallucinations involving giant ants and insects piercing through skin, the eating of a live octopus, and a spectacular hammer fight in a dimly lit underground hallway are but a few creative elements and sequences utilized in director Chan-wook Park’s fascinating smorgasbord of art and violence. Just as it’s a grand mystery, it’s a more significant revenge picture, setting up a decades-long scheme involving obscured layers of retaliation, retribution, familial complications, hypnosis, and gradually returning memories. But with such a complex build of anticipation for the big reveal, can it possibly live up to the hype?
Obvious comparisons to Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo,” even mentioned in the context of the film, cease shortly after the setup. The hero doesn’t get a chance to concoct his own clever form of circuitous payback, as he instead focuses on solving a horrendous crime so mired in flashback-heavy construction and farfetched connections that the conclusion is borderline laughable. While it’s intended to be shocking and weighty, it mostly becomes infuriating. Revenge keeps all the characters moving, but it’s not to be relished by all. Though the film is an initially intriguing game of riddles and murder, devised by a callous madman who must be kept alive even after being found out so that the truth can be unveiled (quite the dilemma for an anguished sole equally envenomed with rage and yearning for knowledge), it culminates in such outlandish morbidity that it’s difficult to admire as a competent whole. Something of a twisted, dark inspiration for subsequent conspiracy-riddled mysteries like “The Black Dahlia,” “Zodiac,” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “Oldboy” is unique but definitely not for everyone.
– Mike Massie