Best South Korean Film: Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy
The revenge thriller is one of the old standbys of genre filmmaking. Crossing the threshold of horror, action, noir and exploitation, revenge thrillers are some of the most ubiquitous films in the entire medium. That’s why it’s such a thrill when you stumble upon a revenge thriller that really stands out. Oldboy is one such film.
Park Chan-wook’s tale of dueling revenge plots unravels in such a way that the viewer can’t help but be pulled in right from the outset. What ostensibly begins as a goofy drunken night out quickly changes its tone as protagonist Oh Dae-su finds himself abducted and placed into a hotel… that also happens to be a prison.
For 15 years Oh Dae-su languishes away in his private prison. He teaches himself to fight, watches endless television and vacillates between hyper aggressive masturbation and a never ending string of suicide attempts. For a decade and a half this is Dae-su’s life in Oldboy, until one day he is abruptly released.
From here the film falls into its revenge thriller trappings, as Oh Dae-su sets out to find out who imprisoned him and why, exacting a bloody trail of vengeance and retribution along the way. However, what Oh Dae-su doesn’t realize is how much his quest for blood and justice might end up costing him along the way.
Long as the above plot description might seem, it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what Oldboy is all about. For starters, this is a cruel, nasty movie. The kind of movie where we watch a man eat an octopus alive, unsimulated, just to show how much his time in captivity has destroyed his psychological disposition. “I want to eat something alive”, he says, before proceeding to do exactly that.
Famously Choi Min-sik, who plays Dae-su, went along with the filming of the scene as it was, even though he happens to be a vegetarian and a pacifist. So strongly did he believe in Chan-wook’s film that he wavered on his personal convictions in order to serve the will of the script and the vision of the director.
Wild as that story is, it’s not hard to see why Min-sik was so blown away by Chan-wook’s vision for the film. In all of the avenues of all of the genre trappings of revenge thrillers, there is nothing quite like Oldboy. Brutal in its execution, yet elegant in its cinematography and style, the film often juxtaposes scenes of intense violence and savagery with gorgeous shots of snowy meadows or serene, grassy fields.
Even the scenes of violence, and there are plenty, are dripping with style. Take a single take action sequence that sees Oh Dae-su battling a seemingly endless wave of thugs with only a claw hammer at his disposal. The nastiness and realism of the scene come from Dae-su’s increasingly maimed body over the course of the struggle. Dae-su knows how to fight but he’s not infallible or indestructible, as his various beatings and stab wounds show during the fight. Still, the wry smile he offers when he finally reaches the end of the fight… only to be onset by a whole other group of thugs is really what Oldboy is all about.
For all of its nastiness, Oldboy has a surprisingly whip smart wit. While some of the humor is of the lowered eyebrow variety there are plenty of different avenues that the levity of the film accesses. Take a scene where Dae-su stops a man from commiting suicide to tell him his story, then leaves him to jump after he finishes his tale. The dark tone of the humor is often in line with the overall darkness of the film, but it still offers a brief, sardonic chuckle with which to wash it all down.
The humor and style also show, in tandem, when Dae-su finds the surveillance worker whose job it was to observe him in his captivity. As Oh Dae-su lifts his hammer threateningly, the camera pans out and freezes the frame, drawing a dotted line across the screen from the hammer to the skull of the worker. Again, it’s the sort of absurd glee with which Park Chan-wook revels in the depravity of the film, often with a wink and a nod, that offers Oldboy its particularly unique brand of flavor,
Though the film eventually descends into the realms of Shakespearean tragedy through buckets of blood, piles of bodies, and a twist so shocking and awful that it remains infamous to this day, Oldboy still manages to make the viewer laugh and smile along the way, and that’s no mean feat in a film brimming with as many disturbing dismemberments and vile murders as this film offers.
Truly an all time champ of the revenge thriller genre, Oldboy is a legendary film in the Asia Extreme market, and a must see for anyone who loves a good, solid ass kicking or vicious, brutal comeuppance (or twenty). The ultimate grisly mediation on the genre, Oldboy is a one of a kind piece of filmmaking, and a movie that no one who watches it will ever forget.