Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the big deal?
Oldboy is an action thriller film released in 2003 from South Korea and is based on the Japanese manga series Old Boy by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi. Directed and co-written by Park Chan-wook, the film follows a man mysteriously imprisoned for fifteen years before he is suddenly released and his vengeful quest for answers as to why he was locked away. The film stars Choi Min-sik, Yoo Ji-tae and Kang Hye-jung and it forms the middle entry in Park's Vengeance trilogy following Sympathy For Mr Vengeance in 2002 and concluding with 2005's Lady Vengeance. The film received a positive reception from critics, especially outside Korea where the film was awarded the Grand Prix prize at the Cannes Film Festival and lauded by critics and filmmakers alike including Quentin Tarantino. The film made $15 million globally and has remade twice - an unofficial Hindi film called Zinda and a Hollywood remake of the same name by Spike Lee in 2013. The film has since been hailed as one of the best neo-noir films of all time as well as one of the best films of the 2000s
What's it about?
In 1988, businessman Oh Dae-su is arrested for being drunk and disorderly and ultimately misses his daughter's birthday party. Eventually getting picked up by his friend Joo-hwan, Dae-su is snatched off the street and held in a cell in solitary confinement by persons unknown. With just a TV for company, Dae-su gets used to the routine of being fed Chinese food through a hatch in the door before being gassed to sleep where his room is cleaned and he is groomed by masked strangers. Learning through the TV that his wife has been murdered (and that he is the only suspect), Dae-su struggles to hold on to his sanity but dreams of one day being free so he mentally prepares himself and practises martial arts and shadow boxing.
Fifteen years later, Oh Dae-su is suddenly released into a world he barely remembers. As he struggles to adjust to having his freedom back, he finds himself in a sushi restaurant where he meets beautiful chef Mi-do. But not everything is at it seems - a strange begger gives Dae-su money and a mobile phone, where his mysterious captor taunts him and gives him five days with which to discover the reasons behind his imprisonment. As Mi-do and Dae-su work together to solve the mystery, neither of them can imagine the horrors that await them...
Trailer (restored version)
What's to like?
I remember not that long ago trying to persuade people to watch Parasite, the Korean-language film that shocked the world by winning the Best Picture Oscar a few years ago. Their expectation was that Parasite was a disturbing, almost horror-film effort that featured some truly disgusting visuals - perhaps they were thinking of this film instead? Oldboy is not an easy film to watch for several reasons but it is also an amazing character study thanks to a stunning performance from Choi. Driven to the point of madness and consumed with rage, Choi inhabits the role totally by delivering brutal violence coupled with regret, sadness and determination. He reminds me a lot of the Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, star of films like Rashomon and Seven Samurai - Choi gives himself wholly to the role, unrestrained by inhibition and literally unchained against the world.
But crucially, Oldboy isn't just extreme cinema for the sake of it. Everything has a purpose, bound together by a far-fetched but gripping story that takes you on a real journey. Granted, these aren't especially nice people or pleasant things to watch but the core mystery actually keeps you glued to the film and the film's pacing is perfect, drip-feeding its audience enough to keep their attention. I also enjoyed Park Chan-wook's direction, which feels suitably energetic and epic in feel. The highlight is a long fight sequence shot in a single take (which I admit, I'm a sucker for!) and set within a dingy corridor which explodes into action as Dae-su takes on an entire armed gang with just a claw hammer and an indominable spirit.
- The scene in the sushi bar involved the consumption of four live octopuses which is actually commonplace in Korean cuisine but caused some controversy overseas. As a Buddhist, Choi Min-sik prayed after eating each one of them. When asked whether he felt sorry for the actor, director Park Chan-wook said that he felt more sorry for the octopus.
- The sushi bar was called Mediterranean which was the actual name of the location but Park wanted the restaurant to be called Akira, an obvious nod to Akira Kurosawa.
- The corridor fight scene was legitimately filmed in one take although it did take seventeen attempts over three days to shoot the sequence. The only CG involved was some minor editing to connect some of the punches and the knife sticking in someone's back. The scene has influenced imitations in TV shows like Daredevil and Preacher as well as other action films like John Wick.
What's not to like?
Unfortunately, I can't find it within myself to award the full five stars to Oldboy. For starters, it is almost unrelentingly bleak. The dimness of the shoot, no doubt intended to pay homage to film noir or the original manga, makes everything feel downbeat and depressing. The story doesn't help either - yes, it's compulsive and the twists are well disguised but this is one of those films where no-one truly wins. If anything, the film underscores the meaningless nature of revenge and how it ultimately achieves nothing. If you're looking for justice then it's best to turn the other way.
The film also keeps some of its answers to itself. There is a scene where a character hallucinates an ant crawling from underneath their skin before they are quickly covered in thousands of the little bugs. I wasn't sure what this was meant to mean although it's possible something was lost in the translation somewhere. The ending also felt a touch underwhelming despite the beauty of the cinematography and the performance of the actors. Sometimes, I feel the need for a ending that is conclusive instead of relying on interpretation and this was one of those times. Perhaps if I watch it again in future (which I wouldn't be adverse to), the picture becomes a bit clearer but initial viewing, I was left wanting more. Namely, a sense that what I had just witnessed meant something and wasn't just an extreme ordeal for viewers to experience.
Should I watch it?
Oldboy is a rare film that reminds us of how a decent thriller should actually work - it's a brilliantly written and performed mystery that certainly makes me want to read the original manga and perhaps more importantly, want to see more of Park Chan-wook's work (see below). But it's also a reflection on the nature of honour, redemption, revenge and love as well as a stunning reminder of how sanitised and safe Hollywood has become these days. It won't be for everybody but Oldboy is an essential watch if you're looking to expand your horizons and challenge yourself.
Great For: audiences bored of the same-old-same-old, Korean cinema, Park Chan-wook's career, thriller fans
Not So Great For: animal rights supporters, the easily shocked, the squeamish
What else should I watch?
Park Chan-wook has become one of South Korea's most heralded directors thanks to his so-called Vengeance trilogy. Beginning with the ultra-violent Sympathy For Mr Vengeance and concluding with the equally brutal Lady Vengeance, it's Oldboy which remains the most popular and well received of these films. But Park is far from a Korean equivalent of Japan's notorious gore-hound Takashi Miike and has directed other films that have a very different feel to them. Take his off-beat romantic comedy I'm A Cyborg But That's OK or his period erotic drama The Handmaiden. His next film, Decision To Leave, is due for release later in 2022 and promises to be every bit as hard-hitting as his other films.
Manga continues to be a popular source of material for cinematic adaptations, the vast majority of which comes unsurprisingly from Japan. So while we in the West have yet to experience films like Hot Road, Assassination Classroom and Vampire Girl Vs Frankenstein Girl (and who wouldn't want to see a film with titles like those?), we have to put up with substandard Hollywood affairs that typically take an age to come to fruition and often disappoint. While films like the long-gestating Akira are still being developed, we've had to endure the likes of the botched remake of Ghost In The Shell and the 2017 version of Death Note. Perhaps the most successful American adaptation was Robert Rodriguez's Alita: Battle Angel which still received a mixed response from critics but made a not-too-shabby $405 million at the box office. My advice is to stick with the more authentic Oriental versions or just read the manga if you can find a decent English translation.
Park Cheol-woong, prison manager
Hwang Jo-yun, Lim Jun-hyung and Park Chan-wook*
Release Date (UK)
15th October, 2004
Action, Drama, Mystery
© 2022 Benjamin Cox