The year was 2004. The event was the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, and the man was Quentin Tarantino, who was serving as President of the Cannes Film Festival jury. Tarantino is a personal hero of mine (as if you couldn’t surmise that already), and he decided to give the Grand Prix to Oldboy, an ultra-violent South Korean revenge thriller. There are very few films that I expected Tarantino to like more than Oldboy, because I can’t think of something that fits his sensibilities so perfectly. Oldboy came out the same year as Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1, and the fact that this film plays out like an elaborate video game just strikes me as something that Tarantino would love. Yet, this review isn’t about how much I predict Quentin Tarantino enjoyed this film – it is a review of Oldboy, one of the most audacious and incredibly tense films I have ever seen, and the fact that it has gone on to be a worldwide classic of Asian cinema, endeared by everyone from action loves, arthouse geeks and acclaimed film directors must mean this film is something truly special.
Oldboy is about Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), a seemingly normal man that has a penchant for alcohol. One night, he is kidnapped and placed in a hotel room by an unknown captor, with unknown motives. For the next fifteen years, Dae-Su is held a prisoner in that room, and when he is finally released, he goes on a journey to find the reason for his imprisonment, and get vengeance on the people who kept him locked up for so many years. He is given five days to figure out the reason for why he was locked up, and he soon finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy theory that takes him to the very depths of society and even more, the very bottom of his soul, where secrets reside.
There is one reason I adored Oldboy – this is an action film for the arthouse geeks. Honestly, I do enjoy the odd brainless Hollywood blockbuster (normally starring some combination of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Jason Statham), but these are just radical forms of escapism, and they aren’t usually very good. Oldboy, on the other hand, is a film that appeals to my love of arthouse and foreign cinema – not only is it a tense and exhilirating action film, it is also a pretty brilliant piece of cinema. It is a film unlike anything Hollywood could conjure up (and trust me, when it comes to Oldboy, they certainly did try and jump on this bandwagon of brilliance, and while I haven’t seen the ill-fated remake, I am not entirely sure I am willing to soil the original’s legacy by wasting my time on the remake). There is just something so unique about this film, probably in the fact that Park Chan-Wook is a wonderfully talented filmmaker, and he clearly knew exactly how to make an action film that leaves the audience shocked and exhilirated.
The most surprising thing about Oldboy is the fact that in addition to being a truly original action film, it is also a strangely hilarious film. It is one of the darkest comedies I have ever seen, which is shocking, because I honestly didn’t expect it to be this funny. Don’t misunderstand me – this is not a lighthearted film, but it does have some moments of pure pitch-black humor. Oldboy is a dark comedy firmly rooted in the idea of absurdity, and Park constantly reminds us that despite this film having some extremely shocking and serious moments, there is still a possibility to find humor in the most bizarre places.
An extraordinary amount of this film’s success comes in the fact that Choi Min-sik gives a performance for the ages. Oh Dae-su is one of the strangest characters cinema has ever seen – on one-hand, he is a bloodthirsty, vengeful monstrosity of a protagonist with questionable methods, but on the other hand, he is also an adorable and lovable goofball. Much of this film’s humor comes from the fact that Choi understands that an action hero doesn’t need to be completely morbid and serious, and that it is impossible to keep up the facade all the time. I found him absolutely brilliant, and his masterful performance is one that will be very difficult to forget, especially when he isn’t only heroic, he is also endearing – even when he is undergoing some questionable actions. Yoo Ji-Tae is terrifying as the villain of this film, being cold and calculating, but extremely charismatic as well. Kang Hye-jung is lovely as Mi-do, Oh Dae-su’s love interest.
Talking of love interests, another surprising part of Oldboy is how it isn’t only an action film – it is also a truly engrossing love story. There is a deep commitment to showing the romance between Dae-su and Mi-do, and the film makes sure to show the romantic aspects as clearly as possible – unlike many action films, character development is not an afterthought, but the driving factor of this film. It is just one of the complexities of this film, and further evidence pointing towards its unbelievable brilliance. It also helps that the two actors have remarkable chemistry, and in both the more serious and lighthearted moments, they both excel. The desperation and sadness shines through just as much as the goofiness, and I found some of the more quiet moments to be on par with the iconic action scenes.
There is a term I love regarding action and thriller films – ultraviolence, a term coined by Anthony Burgess, the man behind the novel that became one of the most controversial films of all time, A Clockwork Orange. Now contrary to popular belief, violence in films don’t breed violent people, expect for the few deranged people that take inspiration from films and go and do terrible things, but that is more of a result of their own personal issues rather than violent movies. My main problem with violence in movies is that very few people can do it right, and it just sometimes becomes too excessive.
Understandably, violence can be entertaining, and who doesn’t love seeing our hero walk away from an enormous explosion? What many people don’t realize is that violence in cinema can be an art. There is a certain way to craft violence in a film that makes it both excessive and thrilling, but also resonant in an artistic way. Needless to say, this entire concept perfectly describes Oldboy – violence is not at all absent from this film, and Park certainly goes to extreme lengths to show violence in a way that was gruesome and thrilling, but also beautiful. I consider myself someone who is relatively desensitized to most kinds of violence in movies (granted its not something like a snuff film or violence made specifically to revolt), and even I found myself recoiling in horror at some of the moments in this film, while at the same time being utterly mesmerized by the sheer beauty of it.
Oldboy seems to take cues from video games in the way it structures its action sequences – it becomes almost metafictional in how it shows some of these moments (for example, the iconic moment when Dae-su is about to kill someone with a hammer, and the film tracks a visual path between the raised hammer and the soon-to-be victim’s head) – and like all great video games, it is exhilirating, uncomprimising and deeply entertaining. It may be overly violent, but it is also so engrossing, we feel like we are in the film ourselves, experiencing this all for ourselves.
Park Chan-Wook is unbelievably talented, and Oldboy rightly ascended him to a newer level of fame. Technically and visually, this film is a tremendous experience. Where to begin? It feels like I need to personally thank nearly everyone involved in this film, because it was somewhat of a transcendent experience. The cinematography by Chung Chung-hoon was stunning and extraordinarily framed, with beauty being found in nearly every part of this film. The editing by Kim Sang-bum was absolutely genius, jumping between narratives to tell a story that is shown in fragments and culminates in absolute beauty. The music was astonishing – both the original score by Jo Yeong-wook and the pre-existing music that sets the tone of this film. I feel like the true genius of this film – in terms of narrative and technical filmmaking – can be summed up with one scene, where Dae-su (having just been released) sits in a restaurant and eats a live octopus, with the tentacles flailing while he devours it. It is such a disturbing but utterly beautiful scene, which as a whole can describe the film.
There is no denying that Oldboy is not an obscure film – it has become a classic of world cinema, and it has worldwide appeal, as evident by its status as a classic of its genre. It is one of those rare genre films that manage to acquire a wide-reaching array of fans. I suspect it is because not only is it a highly entertaining piece of cinema, it has themes that resonate with many of us. Perhaps not in terms of the narrative (because this film does take a horribly twisted turn that left me at a loss for words), but rather in the sense of a search for meaning, and answers to life’s eternal questions. It is a wonderfully philosophical film, with a deeply meaningful self-awareness of itself. As I said before, it is very metafictional in its execution – in a way, it seems aware of its own absurdity and embraces it to create a film that is as complex as it is entertaining, so it is not difficult to see why this has become such a classic.
I adored Oldboy – it is a smart, thrilling and amazingly entertaining film. It often left me speechless, and its violence could often by grotesque and shocking, but that was part of why I loved it. It wasn’t afraid to be as demented as it was, and it relished in its complexities. I really think Oldboy is a marvelous film, with incredible talent behind and in front of the camera. It may not be a film for everyone, but I certainly think it is an amazing piece of cinema, and those with a passion for action films will love this. It most certainly deserves its status as a genre classic, and I hope it continues to grow in reputation as the years go on. Truly an unforgettable film, and an extraordinary experience in every sense of the word.