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As Hong Kong cinema did in the 1990s, South Korean
cinema is just now starting to make noticeable waves in the United States. Cinephiles,
however, have been following the likes of Kim Ki Duk (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter
Isle), Hong Sang-Soo (Turning Gate, Virgin Stripped Bare by Her
Bachelors), and Park Chan-Wook (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Joint
Security Area) for many years now. Parks latest, Oldboy, a thrilling
black comedy-drama, will likely one day be upheld as an entry point into this
decades Korean cinema as John Woos The Killer is for Hong Kongs
cinematic resurgence in the American popular eye.
Oldboys story chronicles what happens when a man is imprisoned in one room for fifteen years and then suddenly released. Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik, Shiri), an irresponsible and indulgent man before this experience, has no idea who did this to him or why, but his mysterious nemesis has given him an ultimatum: Find out in five days or his new lover will die. That lover would be Mido (Kang Hye-Jeong), a young waitress Oh Dae-Su meets in a sushi restaurant after his release. Of notable help in this quest is the fact that Oh Dae-Su has spent those fifteen years of entrapment training in martial arts, which he learned from watching the television in his cell. Also, his zeal for vengeance now allows him to take more physical punishment than most NFL offensive lines.
If its not already apparent, Oldboy is certainly not a movie for those looking for realism. It sports the flashy direction of a David Fincher (Fight Club) or Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction) and crosses it with the dark humor of a Takashi Miike (The Happiness of the Katakuris). This is readily apparent in the movies most memorable set piece. Oh Dae-Su, armed only with a hammer, takes on a gang of youths wielding boards and knives in a long hall. Most of the scene is comprised of a single extended camera take in which he fights them all at once or one at a time while the camera dollies along perpendicular to the action. Its brutal and funny at the same time and a bravura piece of choreography.
The movie has a twist ending thats also quite twisted. For once, there are sufficient clues for the audience to figure the solution out instead of it coming out of left field, not that that makes it any less bizarre. Some will find it subversive, some will say its merely tasteless, some will think it obscene, and some will just dismiss it as existing solely for shock value. Regardless, it will likely garner a love-it-or-hate-it reaction.
Oh Dae-Sus nemesis, Woo-jin Lee (Yu Ji-Tae), is the kind of demented mastermind that would shame all of Batmans villains put together. Of course he comes with a bodyguard, Mr. Han (Kim Byeong-ok), who is short, quiet, mild-mannered, and a totally ruthless judo master. Lees performance is full of cool indifference occasionally punctured by the humanizing pain underlying his character. However, its Choi Min-sik as Oh Dae-Su who supplies the most spellbinding performance. The amusing opening montage of him as a vulnerable drunk in a police station belies the intense and brutal changes his character will undergo.
In some ways, Oldboy is like Silence of the Lambs. Whatever pretensions the film might have, its better not to take them too seriously. Parks usual themes of over-the-top vengeance, unintended consequences, and slights on human dignity are all there, but Oldboy works best as a thrilling ride, a genre piece, not as a movie to gain insight into the human experience.
- George Wu