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‘Oldboy’ at 20: Fresh Blood, Fresher Sushi, and The Absolute Worst Hotel in Seoul

Oldboy is, like Rashomon or The Bicycle Thief is not just a great film, but a film that announced the precision and skill of an entire nation’s movie industry. It belongs to that rarified class of films that put a nation on the cinematic map in the eyes of the general public. That is not to say that there weren’t excellent Korean films before Oldboy: just the year before the cool kids had been wowed by Park Chan-wook’s incredible Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, but Oldboy was the movie that caught everyone, from the judges at Cannes to the boys at Blockbuster, by surprise and got them talking. Oldboy made South Korea a nation to watch for amazing films.

Oldboy is the second film in what we would come to know as Park Chan-wook’s “Vengeance Trilogy” following the aforementioned Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.

However, whereas that film drew heavily on French Nouveau influences for a Coen-esque story about events spiraling out of control between the comic and the cosmic, Oldboy utilized a hyperkinetic surrealism that felt like the next evolution in Asian action cinema. The long takes and dry detached wit were traded in for dynamic set-pieces and operatic reversals of fortune.

Alcoholic salaryman Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is kidnapped in a drunken stupor on his daughter’s fourth birthday. He awakens in a strange prison, mocked up to look like a fleabag hotel room and is kept in total isolation from any human contact .

Dae-su is soon told his wife has been murdered, and when he is saved after a suicide attempt, he realizes that he’s being kept alive for a reason. Years go by, and Dae-su begins to lose his grip on sanity from the prolonged isolation, until he trains himself every day in martial arts so that he may have the opportunity to revenge himself upon his captors, and discover why he has been imprisoned.

After 15 years Dae-su is released and begins his investigation into both his predicament and the whereabouts of his daughter with the help of a young sushi chef named Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung) who becomes smitten with Dae-su.

He tracks down the prison he was held at through the dumplings he ate every day while imprisoned, and in a legendary sequence, defeats the entire gang running it in a single hallway fight.

This leads him to industrialist Lee Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae) who admits his culpability and challenges Oh Dae-su to discover the reason for his imprisonment within five days. What follows is a race to discover the truth, and an incredible final act which reveals that we haven’t been watching the story of Oh Dae-su’s revenge against Lee, but rather Lee’s revenge against Oh.

Oldboy I think primarily succeeds because of story construction: it has one of the most intriguing first acts of any film I’m aware of, right up there with Kobayashi’s Hara-Kiri in terms of drawing the viewer in and commanding their attention and curiosity. Oldboy’s first 45 minutes are a master class in editing, giving the viewer so much information without ever overloading or even feeling like exposition because the story beats are so intriguing and the photography is so stylish.

The film then escalates its tension masterfully: the scene of Oh Dae-su eating the live octopus, all the fights where takes perverse joy in getting to test the skills he’s developed, and especially the cat and mouse game with Lee, who never behaves as the audience expects he might and makes the run up to the final showdown irresistible.

One of the markers of the New Korean cinema was the use of the tropes of genre fiction without being beholden to them, and with the ability to freely shift from one set of genre markers to another: Oldboy was the poster child for this. The opening plays expertly on Hong Kong revenge and martial arts cinema, while the middle has an investigation segment that always puts me in the mind of J-horror, like Ringu, where finding out the horrible events that created the monster represented the key to defeating it.

This all builds to a final showdown that feels like Greek tragedy, with each section flowing logically from what has preceded it.

If the film has a flaw I think it is the finale, which while audacious and certainly original, basically tells you that the antagonist has controlled the film from the beginning which can, and in my experience has, caused some viewers to wonder what the point was. It also features a heightened, operatic quality to the performances that can feel artificial if you’re not in the right headspace for it.

That said, this film is a “time capsule” movie for me that always put me where I was in the early 00’s discovering and loving international cinema. If you’ve never seen Oldboy, you must and if you haven’t seen it in a while, it’s a perfect time to come back to it and see how it sits with you all these years later.  Recommended.

Oldboy is available on Digital 4K UHD and playing in select theaters.


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