Oldboy Movie Review

What can you say about a movie that has not one, not two, but three scenes of improvised oral surgery that make Laurence Olivier's bit in Marathon Man look like Steve Martin's bit in Little Shop of Horrors? For starters, you can say that that's really not the most disturbing thing this Korean import has to offer. Oldboy, as it turns out, is not interested in grossing us out, though not for a lack of trying. It's much more interested in playing with the conventions of the revenge fantasy and taking us on a very entertaining ride to places that, conceptually, we might not want to go.

The film begins with the first of many feints that play with our assumptions. A skinny, unkempt man holds another over the side of a building by his tie. Flash back to a fat, clean-shaven man named Oh Dae-su (Min-sik Choi) acting drunk and disorderly in a police station (in a truly Raging Bull-esque effort on Choi's part, we have no clue that this will become the man holding the tie). He isn't out for five minutes before he suddenly disappears. Next thing he knows, he's in what looks like a hotel room, being fed through a slot in a metal door and being gassed on a regular basis. This goes on for 15 years.

But time flies when your director has visual panache. As Dae-su takes it upon himself to train in order to fight his captors, we see in split-screen the major events of the past 15 years from a Korean perspective (an interesting prospect in and of itself). One day, without warning, Dae-su is released onto the roof where we first saw him. And, as it turns out, he's actually trying to save the man with the tie, although ultimately even that isn't the whole truth.

Dae-su spends the rest of the film trying to find out why he was imprisoned and by whom, leaving a trail of bloodied criminals in his path (the amateur dentistry comes into play here). But the closer he gets to an answer, the more he seems to be playing into the hands of the mysterious figure or figures he seeks. Along the way he befriends Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang), a friendly waitress who seems to be hiding something as well.

It would be unfair to give away any more. Part of the fun of Oldboy is seeing if you can figure out what's going on before Dae-su does. But once the full act is revealed, it completely turns the tables on what we've come to expect from a traditional revenge tale. The result is far more unsettling than satisfying, which is, in part, the point.

This is the second film in director Park Chan-wook's "Revenge Trilogy," begun with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, which also deals with the concept of getting even in unconventional terms. The emotional connection we feel to the characters, even Lee (a brilliantly controlled Ji-tae Yu), a man who's somehow involved in Dae-su's imprisonment, gives the turns the plot takes more punch than the occasional gore the film has to offer.

Hats off to Choi for an incredible transformation as Dae-su. We're with him every step of the way from drunken, obnoxious lout to bewildered, angry prisoner, to vengeful, bloodthirsty warrior to, well, you'll have to see to find out. And similar kudos to Park for keeping the presentation fresh and challenging without forgetting the emotional core at the heart of the story. As disquieting as Oldboy ultimately proves to be, one can't help but be impressed by how expertly everyone involved turns our happy little Death Wish tenets inside-out.

The DVD includes substantial extras, including a commentary track, deleted scenes, interviews, and even a fan-created trailer (which one an international contest).

He's no spring chicken.

Comments

Oldboy Rating

" Extraordinary "

Rating: R, 2003

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