The premise is simple: Movies are expensive, Netflix is cheap. So this column will be serving up criticism of all the things you should be watching on Netflix and, on occasion, this reporter might scrape together some money and muster up the courage to go to a theater. Hopefully, the tone of this lands somewhere between Hunter S. Thompson and A. O. Scott, but readable works just as well.
Have you ever seen a movie with a platform shot of a man fighting off a crowd of gangsters with a hammer? No? Imagine Super Smash Bros. if it had been a brutal noir thriller. That seems to be a good way to describe the famous fight scene from Korean director Park Chan-wook’s lauded 2003 film, Oldboy. A tempting introduction, no?
Chan-wook’s work has formed an established pedigree within Korean cinema, and he recently made crossovers into American cinema with his 2013 feature Stoker (starring Mia Wasikowska in the lead role opposite Matthew Goode and Nicole Kidman). Shortly afterwards, Chan-wook featured as a producer on the critically-acclaimed Snowpiercer (starring Chris Evans opposite John Hurt). Prior to his forays into American cinema however, Chan-wook helmed Korean-vampire horror film Thirst which featured grotesque, bloody imagery over stainless white backdrops. The film also reunited Chan-wook with collaborator Song Kang-ho.
Oldboy follows a man named Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), who is abducted and subsequently trapped in a hotel room reminiscent of a Motel 6. While languishing, Oh sees a report on TV that his wife has been murdered and he is suspected, leaving him little hope for a better life outside his prison. Oh passes the time by teaching himself to fight, attempting vainly to escape and generally just getting really angry at whatever anonymous force imprisoned him.
15 years later, Oh finds himself freed although he is not sure why or how. His wife is dead and his daughter has been adopted. Basically, Oh is not terribly excited about his current situation and, logically, decides that he needs to begin a course of bloody vengeance. Also he gets a girlfriend (Kang Hye-jeong), with whom he falls progressively more in love.
To tell you anything else about this movie would ruin several truly shocking and occasionally nauseating twists. Suffice to say it’s a movie about revenge. In fact, Oldboy is part of Chan-wook’s “Vengeance Trilogy.”
In that vein, Dae-su is the archetype of a vengeful spirit. He is short with his words, full of righteous fury and capable of committing great acts of brutality against those who have wronged him. Oh is the true focus of the film. His romantic counterpart Mi-do is more of a plot point than an exciting character. Which is not to say her part is poorly acted. Rather, it merely is not forceful or omnipresent by design.
Oldboy’s villain is far more compelling, albeit in the same way that serial killers and the criminally insane are compelling. Lee Woo-jin (Yu Ji-tae) is pretty scary. That fear comes from Lee’s ability to elicit sympathy while also orchestrating an elaborate game of physical and psychological torture at Oh’s expense. Indeed, at the end of the film you may be left to wonder whether he really is a villain, or if perhaps the revenge he himself sought was justified.
What really makes this movie significant are some of the themes it touches on. As mentioned, it’s hard to go into depth about some of these because it would ruin the movie, but anyone who watches this film and does not walk away questioning the nature of morality may need some help that no movie can offer.
One theme that can be discussed is vengeance, the driving force behind the plot. Oh murders his way through the film guided only by a blind need for retribution as his tormenter seeks his own in a much more nefarious way.
By focusing on vengeance, Park Chan-wook creates a twisted and shocking cautionary tale that incorporates violence, love, obsession and social taboos, the last of which will need to remain vague. Just watch the movie and make sure it’s the Korean version, not the lame American one with Josh Brolin.
Overall rating: 9/10