Movie Review – Oldboy (2003)

Shocking, definitive Korean revenge thriller, Oldboy is both confronting and essential viewing. With a gut-punch narrative that will haunt you for days – weeks even – Park Chan-wook’s iconic, operatic film is one of the genuine greats. If you haven’t seen it, or even heard about it (in spite of its more recent American remake), do yourself a favor and watch this one cold. No spoilers. No advance warning. You’ll never regret it. Or forget it.

Principal Cast :  Choi Min-sik, Yoo Ji-tae, Kang Hye-jung, Ji Dae-han,Kim Byeong-ok, Oh Tae-kyung, Yoo Yeon-seok, Yoon Jin-seo.
Synopsis:   After being locked away for 15 years, a man seeks revenge on those who did so, falling for a local sushi chef in the meantime.


Once you’ve seen it, you will never un-see it.

Oh man, this film is awesome. Shocking, controversial, complex and utterly raw, Oldboy delivers more than enough gut-punches before its violent, catastrophic conclusion rounds out. It’s also best seen (if you’re a first time Oldboy viewer) cold, with no knowledge or expectation. The film has an enormous twist during its final act that will gob-smack even the hardest of cinematic viewers, and I dare you not to be at least a little amazed that such a plot device could be used in what it a fairly mainstream Korean film. I will not spoil this film at all – which means my review will be relatively short for a change – but if you’ve got to this point and haven’t turned away, can I exhort you to do so now, with my recommendation that you watch this film immediately.

Oh yeah, that's what an enema should feel like.
Oh yeah, that’s what an enema should feel like.

Plot Synopsis courtesy Wikipedia: In 1988, businessman Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is kidnapped the night of his young daughter’s birthday and placed in solitary confinement in a hotel-like prison. Confined with no human contact or explanation for his kidnapping, Dae-su soon learns through news reports his wife has been murdered, and he is the prime suspect. Dae-su passes the time shadowboxing, planning revenge, and secretly attempting to tunnel out of his cell. In 2003, exactly 15 years after he was imprisoned, he is released without reason on a rooftop. Dae-su receives a taunting phone call from his captor who refuses to explain why he was imprisoned. Later he collapses at a sushi restaurant and is taken in by Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung), the restaurant’s young chef. Dae-su tries to find his daughter and discovers that she was adopted by a Swedish couple after his wife’s death. Recalling the dumplings he ate while in prison, Dae-su locates the restaurant that made them and tracks a delivery man to the place where he was held: a private prison where people can pay to have others incarcerated. He tortures the warden for information, learning only that he was held captive for “talking too much”. Dae-su is finally approached by his captor, a wealthy man named Lee Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae). Woo-jin gives Dae-su an ultimatum: discover the motive for his imprisonment in five days and Woo-jin will kill himself. If not, Mi-do will die.

Someday soon, you're going to tell me what the hell you had for dinner....
Someday soon, you’re going to tell me what the hell you had for dinner….

The above plot summary is probably too descriptive, really. I mean, the less you know about Oldboy, the better. After having seen it now, some decade-plus after it’s 2003 release, I am thoroughly annoyed with myself for not checking it out earlier. My mate Will over at Silver Emusions summed it up best with this line: Oldboy is about the journey as much as it is also about the destination. Every facet of the film works together seamlessly to create one of the best films of the 2000s.” This is as accurate a summation of Oldboy as you’re likely to get, and the principal reason why folks who haven’t seen it should shy away from this review until they have. To spoil even a fraction of the film’s stunning photography, visceral violence and absolutely heartbreaking finale would be to ruin one of the great virgin cinematic treats. Remember Se7en’s “What’s in the box?” moment? This is better. Or Bruce Willis’ realisation about his fate at the end of The Sixth Sense? Oldboy smashes it out of the park. Quite simply, one of the most devastating revelations ever committed to the screen – and it’s this that makes Oldboy so utterly memorable. It’s a film about revenge, that much is certain, but what’s less certain is just who is right in seeking it.

Got a drop of blood, there matey!
Got a drop of blood, there matey!

Even without this shocking moment of cinema, Oldboy would still be a triumph of production, performance and direction. If you’ve seen Park Chan-wook’s US film debut, Stoker, you’ll have an appreciation for just how sublime this film looks. Camera angles, editing, framing and the superb use of scoring make Oldboy a visual treat; it’s one of those films that feels like you’re watching cinema being redefined as it happens. Chan-wook’s direction on this thing is amazing, using dolly and crane shots, as well as reflected mirror elements, POV shots, and even moments of hallucinatory breakdown to throw the audience for a loop – as the mystery of Oldboy unravels, as the viewer is drawn into the “why” rather than the “how”, Chan-wook’s lovely, technically superior style comes into its own. A massive corridor brawl, between Oh Dae-su and… well, some others, seems like it might have been an early precursor to Zack Snyder’s 300 or Watchmen, which imitates the side-on-shot highly choreographed violence that Snyder made popular through those films. Oldboy is in a class of its own.

What happens when a poo gets stuck
What happens when a poo gets stuck

Rather than try and dissect the films’ nuances and intricacies, most of which would spoil it for the first time viewer, I’m going to wind this review up by stating that it’s easily one of the greatest films of Asian cinema – it’s right up there alongside Akira (animated), Seven Samurai (Kurowsaka) and the original Ringu as powerful, potent cinematic legends, and deserves every aspect of praise it receives. Oldboy is not for the squeamish, nor is it an easy watch, but the confronting nature of its narrative, and Choi Min-sik’s wonderful performance, make it an absolute must see. Oldboy is amazing.

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7 thoughts on “Movie Review – Oldboy (2003)

  1. Completely agree with you, awesome movie. Have you also seen the other two movies of this revenge trilogy? I thought this one was the best one, but the other two are worth seeing too. Another movie worth watching as well is No Mercy (also Korean).
    My recent post Rurouni Kenshin (2012)

    1. I haven't seen the other films in this loose "trilogy", (I think it's The Vengeance Trilogy you're referring to?) but they are on my list now. Can't say I'd heard of No Mercy but I'll have a look at following that up as well, if you think it's good. Cheers man!

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