Directed by: Chan-wook Park
Written by: Jo-yun Hwang, Chun-hyeong Lim, & Chan-wook Park (screenplay, Nobuaki Minegishi (comic)
Starring: Min-sik Choi, Hye-jeong Kang, Ji-tae Yu, and Dae-han Ji
Chan-wook Park makes no secret of his influences. From Tarantino-esque violence to Frank Darabont’s Shawshank Redemption, this movie’s story and visual style are the cut-up pieces of movies new and old. Is it a coincidence it came out the same year as Kill Bill? Someone with a PhD in film studies could probably have a field day, but I was grossed-out and bored.
Oldboy is the kind of movie sold as a visually-stunning thrill-ride that makes you think. Other than keeping up with the fairly simplistic story amid all of the visual prowess, not much thinking really takes place. People mistake the “gasp!” twist near the ending for actual thematic depth, when in reality the only means to this movie’s end is driving out the memories with a hammer to the head.
Park is a terrific director, make no mistake about that, but the screenplay here uses recycled words of wisdom repeatedly; the hammer again at work on the skull. He doesn’t condescend to his audience in the way a director like Lars von Trier does. In fact, the grotesque violence and threatened masculine honor suggest he knows exactly what the people who watch his movies are looking for. Is it as unrepentant and disgusting as Fight Club? Not by any means, but after the credits roll and you have time to think, it may sting a little.
The story begins with a drunken man named Dae-su (Min-sik Choi) being abducted and thrown in some sort of prison by a yet-unknown villain. For 15 years he rots away, finally being released back into the dank, neon-lit dankness of home. If it weren’t for those vibrant lights and some colorful interiors, Oldboy would take place in Gotham City. Instead, it takes place in the city from Blade Runner.
When Dae-su enters a sushi shop, he quickly falls for the waitress Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang) who serves him up a raw octopus. He passes out, tentacles still wiggling in his mouth, and she takes him back to her apartment.
What follows is the bloody quest for truth and justice people have come to expect from revenge fantasies. Where Tarantino subverted his version in Kill Bill by adding genuine human feeling and spaghetti-western bravado, Park pushes hard to the finish line. Dae-su fights his Crazy 88 with nothing but that hammer and a knife stuck in his back. Even he remarks on its absurdity, which is a welcome acknowledgment the movie could have used more of.
These sequences of the invincible protagonist pummeling foe after foe isn’t really over-the-top, but it’s still meant to be funny and cool. Whether it’s either is completely up to the person watching it.
One of the chief things that helps pull this movie above the average line other than its visuals are its actors. Min-sik Choi is exceptionally good in the main role, and is a real trooper when it comes to the sadistic way Park decides to end the film. The entire emotional weight of the movie is in Choi’s hands, and he manages to let it shine through the blood and guts.
The other performers do their job, none as well as Choi. Hye-jeong Kang is good as the sushi waitress that becomes his lover and something more. Ji-tae Yu is brutally uncompromising as the villain. His character’s so over-the-top evil that it’s amazing Yu even makes you care when the movie takes a trip down memory lane in the last third.
As a whole, Oldboy is the kind of blatantly violent thrill-ride we disguise as meaningful these days. We lift it above the likes of Wanted and Smokin’ Aces to the pedestal of City of God and Kill Bill merely because the cinematographer is more gifted. Let’s pound it back down with the hammer and give them a taste of their own medicine, shall we?