I’d somehow never seen Park Chan-wook’s 2003 thriller Oldboy before this week. If you haven’t seen it, the new 20th anniversary re-release is a perfect chance to rectify that. The film has been restored and remastered in 4K. Aside from looking fantastic, this landmark work offers a gripping story that builds to an ending guaranteed to shock you.
Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik) is a businessman who, for reasons he cannot comprehend, is kidnapped and placed in an apartment-like jail cell for fifteen years with only a television for company. The experience understandably drives him more than a little mad, especially since his wife has been murdered, with the blame pinned squarely on him. Just as inexplicably as he’s incarcerated, Dae-Su is suddenly released. He then begins a quest to find out who locked him up and why. Assisting him is Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung), a young sushi chef he meets soon after release.
If you’ve previously experienced Oldboy, you know what comes next. If not, nothing will prepare you. The movie’s central mystery unfolds in a continually surprising manner, as Oh Dae-Su learns the answers are tied to an event from his past – one he thought nothing of, but somebody else has been obsessing over for decades. Park Chan-wook doles out the individual puzzle pieces at just the right times to ensure our constant attention.
The director also sets a mood visually, utilizing carefully composed shots that are off-kilter, or that pack things into the frame in unexpected ways, or that transition into each other cleverly. In fact, there’s not a single uninteresting shot in the whole picture, a quality that adds exponentially to the impact, creating an atmosphere that is simultaneously exhilarating and evocative.
Oldboy is notable as a movie filled with indelible sequences. Dae-Su eats a live octopus (which Choi Min-sik did for real on-camera). There’s a dazzling extended action scene where he takes on about two dozen assailants, armed only with a hammer. It’s done in a single, unbroken take that lasts nearly three minutes. I won’t get specific on the “tongue scene” except to say that you’ll never forget it. These and other moments give the story an addictive sense of force. You feel like the film is grabbing you by the throat, except that you don’t want it to let go.
A fearless, fully committed performance from Choi Min-sik seals it all together. He’s riveting, conveying how insanity and fury combine to motivate his character. The big shock comes in the final few minutes. Beyond the narrative pleasure that comes from watching a tightly executed plot resolve itself, the finale leaves viewers with ideas to ponder. Rarely has a revenge-driven thriller taken a turn this devious. It’s another factor that makes Oldboy one of the most electrifying films you'll ever see.
out of four
Oldboy is rated R for strong violence including scenes of torture, sexuality, and pervasive language. The running time is 2 hours.