Chan-wook Park’s brutal, brilliant follow up to 2002’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance touches on similar themes of burning revenge and doomed love, and like that earlier film piles tragedy upon tragedy. But it’s deeper, darker and even weirder, and marks Park out as one the most innovative directors working today.
Choi Min-sik plays Oh Dae-su, a young man with a wife, young daughter and office job. One night he is kidnapped and imprisoned in a room with only a TV for company. Fifteen years go by before Oh Dae-su is finally released, but before he can start plotting his revenge, his mysterious kidnapper has contacted him, challenging him to uncover his identity and the reasons for his imprisonment.
While Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance took its time to set up its web of chaos and wrath, Oldboy opens with a blistering journey through the 15 years that Oh Dae-su spends in his room, training his body, desperately trying to maintain a grip on sanity when he learns that someone has murdered his wife, and dreaming of the day he will be released. Then he is suddenly out in a strange yet familiar world, where he meets Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang) a young woman who works in a sushi bar and who takes this dishevelled, wild-eyed man in.
Park builds a gripping first half as Oh Dae-su begins the task of trying to discover both the location of his prison and who paid for him to be kept in solitary confinement for so long. His methods of investigation are neatly contrasted, using his tastebuds to find the restaurant that supplied his food all those years and the internet to identify the man who has been emailing Mi-Do with pertinant information. Oh Dae-su trusts no one, but slowly a dangerous attachment forms between him and Mi-Do.
This first hour is superbly realised, carried by Park’s inventive, sometimes dizzying visual style, the creepy sound design and Choi Min-sik’s powerful performance. Oh Dae-su gets to show off the fighting ability he spent 15 years honing in some bone-crunching fight scenes, including a bravaura one-take scrap as our hero works his way through a gang of thugs in a narrow corridor. And if nothing quite rivals the electro-shock torture sequence in Mr Vengeance, the tooth-extraction-via-claw-hammer makes for tough viewing.
It’s in the second act that Oldboy moves into more harrowing territory. Oh Dae-su’s tormentor reveals himself to be Woo-jin Lee (played with a chilling blank charm by Ji-tae Yu) a former schoolmate of Oh Dae-su who blames him for a terrible event in the past. The imprisonment was only part of Woo-jin Lee’s revenge, and the tables turn as Oh Dae-su loses his grip on the situation.
Park brings a surprising level of humanity to the story – it’s a bizarre and twisted tale, but the climatic revelations are more shocking than any amount of physical violence. There are various convolutions that bring the film to its climax, but the narrative is really never troubled by them and Choi Min-sik’s narration adds a gripping immediacy. Oldboy isn’t the great insight into the human condition that some seem to think it is. But it is a first-class exploitation movie made with uncompromising style and an admirable complexity.
Controversial Korean director with a strong visual sense. Made his debut in 2000 with the powerful political thriller JSA, which dealt with the divide between North and South Korea. Follow-up Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance was a gruelling tale of revenge, and Park contributed to the human rights anthology If You Were Me. Oldboy was another acclaimed revenge movie, while Cut was Park's entry into the Asian horror anthology Three... Extremes. In 2005, Park completed his 'revenge trilogy' with Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. He received mixed reviews for I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK, with his modern day vampire story Thirst seen as a major return to form. His first English-language work was the reserved horror drama Stoker which he followed with arthouse hit The Handmaiden.