Oldboy (2003)

Oldboy starts off a lot more simply than it ends. You watch the first half of this movie and you think you have it all figured out. Then the reveals start piling on. By the end, you’re both creeped out and fascinated. This is a disturbing movie, sure, but that content helps to further along the story. It’s not exactly a plausible film, but it all works in the context of its story, which means that you don’t question it; you just appreciate it.

The story begins with a drunk getting arrested and soon after bailed out. He is our protagonist, Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), although he will be a lot different from the man we meet in this early sequence. After leaving the prison, his friend uses a phone booth. They’re in an empty street. Dae-su disappears without a trace. We see him two months later, pleading for information. So are we. He has been kidnapped, held in a hotel room without anyone saying a word. He gets the same food at each meal, and he is put to sleep with military strength knockout gas. He will be here for fifteen years. We observe the time passing.

He is eventually released. He is given clothes, a cell phone and some money. He still has no idea who kept him a prisoner for fifteen years. He’s going to find out, and so are we. That’s the journey that Oldboy takes us on. It’s a thrilling experience, and doesn’t at all wind up being as straightforward as this setup would suggest. If it did nothing else well, it would still be worth watching because of how engaging it becomes.

Part of Oldboy plays out like a mystery. Dae-su has to attempt to discover who imprisoned him, and almost as importantly, why. That’s how the first half of the film works. He goes from place to place, attempting to gather information, all while beginning a romance with a chef, Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung), who takes him in after he collapses in the restaurant in which she works. Why? Perhaps she pitied him. She recognized him from somewhere, or so she thought, so it’s possible that played into her decision. You question it but not for that long; there are more pressing issues.

The mystery is solved midway through. We see the man behind it all at this point. I won’t reveal his name or his actor, although that’s hardly the point. At this point in the film, we still don’t know why he did anything to our lead. We still need to find that out. Most of this is revealed in a final sequence taking place in a penthouse suite. Your mind will be blown. You will not see most of the twists coming. You will want to watch Oldboy again right away to see if it all adds up. It does.

Films that have huge reveals near the end often wind up feeling gimmicky, which both cheapens the twists and harms the film on future watches. This is especially true if the movie in question cheats. Oldboy works regardless of you knowing how it ends, and it doesn’t come close to cheating. Everything works in the context and framework of this film. Watching it a second, or even third time, puts everything in perspective. It adds to the experience; it doesn’t detract like a cheap twist would.

Add in the fact that the ending brings about a perfect irony, and it made for something that I absolutely loved. It’s sick and depraved, I’ll grant you — and the ironic level makes it a touch predictable — but it is so effective when you see it. You can almost see it coming, but it shocks you and blows your mind when it happens. There are many layers to the plot and characters, too, meaning there’s always something more to look for from this film.

Oldboy is so wonderfully crafted. Just like Park Chan-wook’s previous film about revenge, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, you can always tell the director’s love for and mastery of the medium. This is, perhaps, a more polished piece, although both films are wonderful to watch, strictly from a visual sense. It is more violent, which, again, fits in with the tone and story. One particular scene stands out, and shows just how creative and striking this director it. It involves an incredibly lengthy take inside of a hallway in which a dozen or so bodies all wind up fighting a single person. It is a beautiful scene even though much of the choreography feels rough — as it should, given the scene’s context.

The lead actor is Choi Min-sik, who looks grizzled and definitely has the appearance of someone who spent fifteen years locked in a single room. He’s a man of few words, and while revenge is the main thing on his character’s mind, the tender scenes — not having human interaction for that long has given him a susceptibility to sweetness — are some of his best. He can do the action scenes, and has a real physical presence while doing so, but he’s just as competent at the drama.

Oldboy is a fantastic film, and one I absolutely think is worth seeing a couple of times. The depth to the seemingly simple story, the beautiful cinematography, the strong performances and the shocking story all make it something that is definitely worth seeing. And after you see it once, assuming you can get past its graphic content, you’ll want to see it again right away. It’s sick and beautiful, and I really, really enjoyed it.

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