One thing I have noticed from the few Korean films I have seen so far is that Korean cinema really doesn’t hold back. One of that country’s most critically acclaimed and commercially successful movie is Oldboy (2003), which has amazing performances, beautifully choreographed fight scenes and a story filled with many twists and turns. It also has plenty of scenes that will make you squirm whether because of graphic violence, very disturbing revelation, or because you prefer your calamari fried instead of alive.
This was one of the last movies I rented from a video store in the pre-Netflix days in early 2009. By then its reputation had grown in the west especially since on top of the many awards it had won it had also earned high praise from Quentin Tarantino who knows a thing or two about violent and entertaining movies. On paper Oldboy’s plot sounds like something right up his alley: a man is seemingly wronged by an adversary and that man then seeks bloody retribution. However while Tarantino’s blood-soaked revenge films are usually pretty black and white in their depiction of revenge, Park Chan-wook’s film is much more complicated with its morals.
For one thing the man seeking vengeance is not that sympathetic to begin with. In 1988 Korean businessman Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) misses the birthday of his young daughter because he has been arrested for drunkenness. This less than perfect father then misses many more birthdays after being kidnapped and locked up in a room with no explanation. Whoever kidnapped Oh Dae-su is not interested in getting money or even killing him since every day they serve him food through a trap door. The room has no windows, but it does have a TV and one night the news inform him his wife has been murdered and he is the prime suspect.
As he watches the world go by on a TV screen and with no human being to talk to for years, insanity becomes a distinct possibility for Oh Dae-su. Yet revenge is a strong motivator and he decides to put his body into shape while plotting his escape. It turns out his escape plans are a waste of time since one day he wakes up on a rooftop wearing a new suit, 15 years after being imprisoned. Whoever decided to lock up Oh Dae-su is just getting started, which is implicitly stated during a mysterious phone call in which the captor dares him to discover the reason for his years of mental torture.
As Oh Dae-su, actor Choi Min-sik delivers one of the most impressive performances I have ever seen. He had to lose and gain weight depending on when the story was set, he performs fight scenes that are very physically demanding and he has many disturbing scenes in which he portrays a man who is pushed to the very edge of madness. One of the first things Oh Dae-su does after his release is of course get a meal at a restaurant. His choice is to swallow an octopus in one gulp. Apparently, that took four takes. I have yet to see Daniel Day Lewis do that in an American movie.
Speaking of American movies, Spike Lee was bold enough to try to do a remake of Oldboy in 2013. It was a worthy attempt, but anyone who isn’t Korean or who doesn’t mind reading subtitles will most likely agree that it does not top the original. As the story of Chan-wook’s film unfolds the reasons for Oh Dae-su’s imprisonment are eventually revealed and unlike with Quentin Tarantino’s work revenge will not be sweet. In fact, by the time all the twists are revealed some might say Oh Dae-su would have been better off staying in that room.
Oldboy is definitely worth seeing, whether it is for the performances, a corridor fight scene that was shot in a continuous take or the morally complex story. However you will have a hard time smiling by the time the credits start rolling, possibly making this one of those rare movies that you should see, but will only want to see once.