Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy is a dark, twisted, modern take on the revenge thriller, which earned deserved critical appraise and awards worldwide after its release in 2003. It also performed well enough in box offices both in Asia and in western countries for Hollywood to take notice, and Park has recently made the American film Stoker despite having carved out a successful career in his native South Korea. An English language remake of Oldboy, directed by Spike Lee and starring Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Olsen, will be appearing in cinemas next month.
While South Korean films had long been pushing extremities of violence, horror and out-and-out weirdness for many years, Oldboy is the film that first caught the imagination of the wider movie-going public worldwide (and even then a relatively small proportion of it).
We first encounter the main character, Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), drunk and disorderly at the end of an evening in the late 1980s. He is, frankly, absolutely legless, causing havoc in a police station rather than spending the evening at home with his wife and daughter (to make matters worse, it’s his daughter’s birthday). After being bailed out by long-time friend No Joo-hwan (Ji Dae-han), the drunken Oh Dae-su is suddenly – and seemingly inexplicably – kidnapped.
The film jumps forward a couple of months. Oh Dae-su is imprisoned in a cell that resembles a seedy, dirty hotel room. He has no idea why he is being held against his will, and pleads with his captors to release him or at least give him some information as to why he must endure this terrible fate. His captors feed him, and release laughing gas into the room to knock him out whenever he is unruly or they want him to sleep, but tell him nothing. Oh Dae-su is provided with pencils and a writing pad, which he uses to write a journal and to list those he has wronged in life. His only company is the room’s television, through which he learns that he has been framed for the murder of his wife.
A montage uses news clips (the fall of the Berlin Wall, Princess Diana’s death, various South Korean parliamentary changes) to show the passing of years. Growing ever madder (in all senses of the word), Oh Dae-su swears revenge and repeatedly beats the wall, training himself as a fighter. He is fed dumplings every day, and one day receives an extra chopstick by accident. He hides this after amusingly noting that someone in a different room has presumably just received one instead of the normal two, and then puts it to use as a makeshift tool, slowly making a tunnel out of the room and subsequently to the wall of the building. The only trouble is he’s in a skyscraper, many floors from the ground.
This isn’t The Shawshank Redemption, though. After 15 years of incarceration Oh Dae-su is hypnotized by his captors and then suddenly released onto a roof. Free at last, he struggles to adapt to being around other humans again, but is sheltered by the sympathetic chef Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung), who seemingly takes a shine to him despite the fact he nearly rapes her and orders / eats a live octopus in her restaurant.
I did find this scene, which understandably caused much fuss upon release, quite unpleasant to watch. Yet though defenders of animal rights were outraged about the treatment of the octopus (actually several were used), it is worth bearing in mind that live octopus is a delicacy in South Korea…something that the director himself confirmed. Choi Min-sik found it all a little hard to stomach (arf) apparently – he’s a devout Buddhist. Regardless, I found other scenes in Oldboy even more difficult to sit through than the notorious octopus scene, in particular a grim moment of torture involving some crudely-extracted teeth. Kerrrunch!
Oh Dae-su is not really free, though: he is taunted by the man behind his imprisonment via the phone and via an online chatroom, who eventually tells him that he has five days to discover why he was held for so many years or Mi-do will die. Ingeniously Oh Dae-su turns detective, sampling dumplings from all over Seoul to try and match the taste with the dumplings he was forced to eat every day for 15 years. Gradually he gets nearer and nearer to his tormentor, and closer to uncovering the reason for his captivity.
While the captive / tormentor revenge tale is nothing new, Oldboy has a certain freshness even ten years after its release. In fact, several directors around the same time managed to wring new life out of the genre, most notably Christopher Nolan (Memento), Gaspar Noé (Irreversible) Tony Scott (Man On Fire), Martin Scorsese (Gangs Of New York) and Quentin Tarantino (the hyperactive Kill Bill movies). Park’s take – part of a trilogy of vengeance films, the other two being Sympathy For Mr Vengeance and Lady Vengeance – includes plenty of violent, unsettling images more usually associated with horror films, but these never threaten to overwhelm what is essentially a human story (albeit a very, very twisted one). These scenes are visually stunning, ensuring that Oldboy has a style and a vivacity that successfully masks the fact that the plot, when it is boiled down, is fairly basic.
Still, it is great (and often harrowing) entertainment watching Oh Dae-su rapidly solve this bizarre puzzle. One deftly choreographed but unlikely scene, in which he fights several goons in a long corridor, shot entirely from the side, is fascinating; it reminds me of the 1980s computer game Renegade more than any other action film.
Unfortunately, in the midst all that is fresh and new, there are some stylistic choices that seem a little bit too obvious. Oh Dae-su’s tormentor Lee Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae) turns out to be a kind of sadistic villain audiences have seen many times over: understandably the character must be wealthy, but having him occupy a fancy, techno-futuristic expensive penthouse suite is a cliché. Add in the quirky fact he has a pacemaker fitted that he can threaten to switch off at any time (thereby preventing Oh Dae-su from finding out the truth about his incarceration) and an ultra-tough henchman / bodyguard at his side at all times, it’s a little bit like watching a Bond villain that has wandered in from the mid-70s.
I was also disappointed to see several important flashback scenes given that dreary, faded brown look, to signify they happened A. Long. Time. Ago. This is a pet hate of mine, and I dislike it even more than the use of blur around the edges of the screen to signify a flashback or a dream sequence; it’s as if directors believe that all memories are covered in this impenetrable Victorian-era brown sludge. I would probably let this pass without comment normally, but the rest of Oldboy is so inventive, so fresh with its appearance, that it rankles when the standards slip. Still, with a budget of around $3 million, it’s perhaps forgivable, but the lack of creativity here stands out.
Choi Min-sik’s lead performance is excellent, and believable. His scenes in captivity at the start of the film are absolutely gripping, and the manic, pained and strained look he adopts on occasion is truly haunting, especially with his frazzled, unkempt hairdo adding to the effect. The actor is on screen for most of the film, and in that time gets through a real array of emotions. It’s a superb turn, and has been rightly lauded.
It’s not difficult to see why Park’s film was so successful (winning the Grand Prix at Cannes, no less) – at times it is as bracing as stepping into a cold shower, or walking into a lamppost, albeit without the physical pain. While the remake may well be inventive, and may well find a wider audience, it’s doubtful it will have the same impact, given the familiarity many will have with the story (which, incidentally, was in manga form originally, but with many elements toned down … and that’s unusual in itself). Perhaps commercial concerns will see some of the extreme violence toned down as well, but that’s for Spike Lee to worry about. The original Oldboy is a brutal, shocking thriller, which looks fantastic and has just about enough substance to dispel criticisms of it being all surface and no feeling.
Directed by: Park Chan-wook
Written by: Hwang Jo-yoon, Im Joon-hyeong, Park Chan-wook
Starring: Choi Min-sik, Yoo Ji-tae, Kang Hye-jung
Running Time: 120 Minutes