View Full Version : OLDBOY by Chan-wook Park

Howard Schumann
12-13-2004, 09:24 AM

Directed by Chan-wook Park (2003)

Chan-wook Park's Oldboy is a grisly, ultra-violent, but wildly exhilarating experience, unlike any I have encountered at the movies this year. A grand prizewinner at last year's Cannes Film Festival, Oldboy has plenty of action, state of the art CGI, dark humor, and an existential mystery that will linger in your mind long after the final credits have rolled. Based on a manga by Tsuchiya Garon, Oldboy has elements of revenge but to describe it as a "revenge saga" is perhaps to oversimplify things. It is a complex film about love and the price we must pay to save it.

The opening scenes offer a bit of slapstick as young Oh Daesu (Choi Min-sik) is hauled into the police station for public drunkenness on his daughter's birthday. After being bailed out by a friend, he is kidnapped and wakes up in a bleak room designed to look like a hotel but with a false view window and a locked steel door. He is being held captive but where, why, by whom, and for how long? He receives no answers, only food fed through an opening at the bottom of the door. Drugged to sleep by Valium gas, his captors come during the night to clean his room and cut his hair. When he finds out that he must remain there for fifteen years, his mind begins to unravel and he goes through several breakdowns.

He is hypnotized but never meets his captors. The only human faces he sees are those on the television screen where he learns one day that he is a suspect in his wife's murder. Driven only by an insane desire to get out and enact revenge on his jailer, he trains himself daily to stay in shape by punching the wall. After fifteen years, he is released but soon finds out that the world outside is as much of a prison as his room. He is deposited on a roof and finds a man ready to kill himself; yet he has no compassion, only the single-minded drive to find and kill those who imprisoned him. Without money or friends he does not ask questions when a stranger provides him with a cell phone and a wallet.

Obsessed with finding the truth for himself, Daesu begins his investigation by sampling food from the Chinese restaurants in the area to find the one that provided the food during his captivity. At one of the restaurants he meets and is nurtured by a chef named Mido (Kang Hye-jeong), but he is afraid of trusting anyone. Daesu is too bent on revenge to care much for human relationships, but little by little his attachment to Mido grows. There is a sequence where Daesu has to fight his way past a gang of thugs in a narrow hotel corridor that stands out for its naturalism. Shot in a continuous tracking shot, the scene allows its audience neither the comfort of glamorization or even much in the way of style, but simply shares the drama of a terrible struggle for survival. Like much of the movie, the scene is arresting.

Daesu's captor tracks his every move using state of the art surveillance equipment and we learn that his tormentor is a former schoolmate who blames him for a terrible event in the past. A strange blend of horror and beauty, Oldboy is not for the squeamish, but if you can stand the grimmer moments you will enjoy one of the most memorable films of the year. Park does not condemn or stand in judgment of his characters but allows us to see them as flawed human beings who have been pushed into taking extreme measures to salvage what remains of their dignity. If the ending is a bit harsh, it also has moments that are tender. Oldboy can be repulsive but it has a great deal of humanity and Daesu's pitiful sadness and longing for redemption reminds us of our own vulnerability.


12-13-2004, 11:07 AM
I am glad to see a review on foreign film here ...

I have watched the movie and like it very much ...
It has garnered a lot of awards worldwide
(I will key in when I am free).

- it questioned what is love and what is sacrifice
- it also challenged what is freedom and what is imprisoned/pain
- it wondered about the importance of truth and the evil of tongue ...

My recommendation: Go watch if you have not ... ;)

Howard Schumann
12-13-2004, 12:42 PM
Originally posted by hengcs
I am glad to see a review on foreign film here ...
;) I have watched the movie and like it very much ...
It has garnered a lot of awards worldwide
(I will key in when I am free).

- it questioned what is love and what is sacrifice
- it also challenged what is freedom and what is imprisoned/pain
- it wondered about the importance of truth and the evil of tongue ...My recommendation: Go watch if you have not ... ;) Thanks for commenting. Some say that it is all style and no substance but I disagree. You have pointed out some of the important things the movie is saying.

Chris Knipp
04-11-2005, 09:31 PM
Park Chan-wook: Oldboy (2003)

Revenge: a dish best eaten live?

Review by Chris Knipp

In Park Chan-wook's Oldboy (which won the grand prize at Cannes in 2004 when Tarantino was at the helm), a rough-looking man with a wife and child at home goes on a drunk and is held by the cops for some hours. A series of relentless jump-cuts show him cutting up at the police station. He gets bailed out, but suddenly disappears in a pour-down rain while his rescuer is in a phone booth. The next we know he's imprisoned in a tiny apartment-like jail cell, and is held there for….fifteen years! Again jump cuts take us through this experience, which includes pumped-in gas while he sleeps, self-tattoos of cross-hatching to remind himself of the years, a journal, a constant TV which is his only companion, imaginary swarms of insects, and personal martial-arts conditioning that includes punching the wall till his knuckles bleed.

When the man gets out, having a taste for something other than the pot-stickers he was served all the time in his prison he stops at a sushi bar and asks for "something live." He's brought an octopus as big as two fists and he gobbles it -- live -- and passes out. The female sushi chef presiding at this event bonds with the man and they go looking for whoever imprisoned him and try to find out why. I forgot to mention the man on the roof who wants to jump and lands on a car as our hero walks away, smiling to himself, from the building where he's been held all those years. Nobody could keep track of all the hyper-kinetic, dark, grungy contents of Oldboy. It's in Korean, by the way, and if you don't know Korean you may miss a bit of the dialogue. It's got those subtitles that fade when the background's light, and they flick by pretty fast too.

What is clear is that as somebody taunts him, Oh Dae-Su's just in a larger prison when his captors let him out, and what he does is part of a maniacal scheme to do him far worse harm than mere physical confinement.

What's initially endearing about this accomplished but cartoonish revenge-mystery actioner, apart from Choi Min-sik's gonzo performance as Oh Dae-Su, the imprisoned man who turns sushi freak, is its obsessiveness, which Choi's intensity neatly underlines. The troubles begin when you realize that however maniacally determined Oh Dae-Su's pursuit of his tormentor and unraveling of his imprisonment's secrets are, it's all ultimately lost on us because it makes little logical, and even less emotional, sense. Or, where it does make sense, it's patently impossible.

Park Chan-wook is a clever and inventive filmmaker who like many of the other 'dark,' 'cool' cineastes of today has a visual style that outstrips his ability to tell a story. Since you could have said that about The Big Sleep and many still do, it may be that critical head-shaking over Oldboy will seem passé in time and the film will morph into a classic. It's been said already though that Park is pursuing cult status faster than he can keep up with himself.

The encrustation of the mechanical upon the living was Bergson's definition of the comic, and by that definition this movie should be a laugh riot. There's both elaborate visual trickery and intense real physicality -- witness Oh Dae-Su's consumption of the octopus. He really bites the thing's head off and chews on the still-writhing tentacles as they nervously coil round his cheek. The martial arts sequences are tricky and complicated; I doubt that the actor is doing all his stunts like Tony Ja in Ong-bak: Thai Warrior, but his physicality is down to earth as he punches out one thug after another. No jumping, just punches and falls. But the images and their sequencing are most artfully manipulated. There's a sex scene, and an erotic scene, and a torture sequence involving dental extractions.

How Oh Dae-Su finds people and how people find Oh Dae-Su is pretty confused. There's a vague sense that Oh Dae-Su's tormenters are evil masterminds à la James Bond. They have gangsterish connections and there's a posh huge penthouse at the end. But our hero seems to have been held in a kind of rent-a-jail cell, and whoever ordered up this treatment was apparently connected with something more mundane than Goldfinger: simply a schoolmate who bears Oh Dae-Su an obscure grudge. When the school enemy appears, if I've got this right, he seems to be a decade or two Oh Dae-Su's junior. Does it matter? It's going to be hugely important to cultists of this movie to be able to explain everything. But it doesn't seem so significant for the rest of us, because the people aren't real or specific enough for us to care. Choi Min-sik's a gnarly little dynamo (his wacko behavior fits better here than it did in the artistic biography Chihwaseon) and his nemesis is a tall, cool, godlike personage. That's the point. The contrast is enough.

And when the evil doer enters the picture there are flashbacks about a strange family relationship. He never acquires motivation, though, or feeling, just as Oh Dae-Su never acquires a full back story and we never see his family.

Oldboy has hints of Tarantino and Tarantino's Asian martial arts sources, but although there's a lot of dialogue, as far as one can tell the talk is very far from Pulp Fiction's priceless exchanges.

You think the idea's unique -- imagine being locked up for fifteen years without explanation -- but then you realize it's not only what happened to Victor Hugo's Jean Valjean, but essentially what happens to a lot of black men in America, only then it isn't the beginning of a hip nightmare film. The imprisonment of black men is the real tale of society's revenge on an undeserving minority, but Oldboy's maniacal and inexplicable personal revenge of one middle class man on another has no social significance; worse yet, it never acquires an emotional one.

Director Park Chan-wook is a director to reckon with -- some of Oldboy's sequences are hard to forget -- and he's found a worthy star in Choi Min-sik. But this dark, disturbing, violent movie is clever without being intelligent.

Posted on Chris Knipp website (http://www.chrisknipp.com/writing/viewtopic.php?t=406)

04-15-2005, 05:07 PM
To say any more about the plot would only spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen it, this is a big screen film and needs to be seen (if possible) as such. Although the plot may be thin on substance, you need to remember it is adapted from a manga and is certainly far better than the majority of adaptations of this type.

The film is laced with black humour and some effects and elements used come straight out of the world of cartoons, once or twice I was reminded of Itchy & Scratchy from the Simpsons. I don't believe this was ever meant to be taken as a serious revenge drama, but it is an enjoyable slice of entertaining hokum.

As I've already said, catch it on the big screen if you can, it just doesn't have the same impact (sic) on a TV. Chris just one point, you say "we never see his family" which I find an odd statement, after all, we do see his daughter and his wife is dead.

Cheers Trev.

Chris Knipp
04-15-2005, 05:26 PM
Well, Trevor, the New Yorker's thumbnail description says "As for the solution to the mystery, don't wait up," so we might also warn future viewers it's not earthshaking what the secrets are even though we shouldn't reveal them now. I think the movie shoots its wad in the first half hour, but it's quite a wad. I don't think mainstream reviewers have taken much account of this coming from a manga, and I'm not sure I even know what a manga is, but it's interesting in that context to compare this which to my way of thinking does at least have a (racing) pulse with the relatively waxworks comix adaptation Sin City. Yes, by all means, big screen.

I know my remark "we never see his family" is a bit misstated, I ought to have qualified, I meant we never see him having the background of a life as he once presumably did, with them. Your point is well taken.