Revenge is once again the dish of the day in Park Chan-wook’s blisteringly inventive thriller.
Oldboy is the meaty middle of South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy, which began with 2002's Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and came to a close with Lady Vengeance in 2005. The 2004 Cannes Grand Prix winner sees an ordinary idiot suffer an extraordinary punishment for a crime he can’t recall, transforming him into a maniacal avenger.
In Oldboy Choi Min-sik plays Oh Dae-su, a middle-class reprobate who’s shown raising hell in a police station on his young daughter’s birthday. Apparently unremarkable in every way, save his thirst for excess, he’s about to be plunged into a nightmare: one moment he’s drunkenly wishing his daughter happy birthday in a phone-booth, the next he’s been silently snatched and banged-up in a hotel-style cell.
Fifteen long years pass in said cell, during which time Dae-su is fed on a daily diet of dumplings and refused information relating to his mysterious imprisonment or captor, while his suicide attempts are thwarted. Television becomes his friend, his clock, his calendar, his school, his church, his lover. As he watches, he learns that his wife has been murdered and that he has been framed for the crime.
Although he’s working on an escape, one day without warning Dae-su is released, springing from a suitcase onto a rooftop garden. Most surprisingly, his tormentor encourages Dae-su to hunt him down, providing him with a phone, cash and a drip-feed of clues. In his investigations Dae-su is joined by a kind-hearted young sushi chef Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong). The villain of the piece, Lee Woo-jin (Yu Ji-tae), shows his face early but resists revealing his hand until the bloody finale.
The amiable Park Chan-wook has described his attraction to vengeance as stemming from his belief that whilst in a sophisticated and theoretically civilised modern society venting one’s anger has become socially taboo, that anger still exists.
He believes that outlets for anger have been blocked, and so constructs violent fantasies relating to this onscreen. Far from mere stylised ultra-violence, his films deal in shades of humanity and inhumanity – furthermore, he understands the tragic limitations of revenge and that it can never bring complete satisfaction.
A generous helping of humour makes Oldboy both hugely likable and, for the sensitive souls amongst you, perhaps more palatable – it’s a good fit with the film’s manic energy. For instance: a tooth extraction is set cheerfully to Vivaldi’s 'Four Seasons'; after a decade and a half in solitary confinement Dae-su wonders whether his imaginary physical training can be put to use in a street fight – after improbably besting his rivals he concludes, "Apparently it can"; and when he wakes up in his prison cell to find his hair has been cut he mundanely complains that he "doesn’t really like the style".
Park Chan-wook draws a fearless performance from his lead Choi Min-sik and the actor shows himself to be remarkably game. A memorable sequence where Dae-su takes on hoards of thugs in a corridor plays out like a scrolling video game beat 'em up. It was filmed as one long (and for Choi Min-sik utterly exhausting) take, though it had comprised of 100 shots in the storyboard.
Most famously, Choi Min-sik was also required to eat a live octopus (or in fact four), with the director recalling that every time he did so he made a little apology to the octopus in question, in a nod to his Buddhist upbringing.
Dae-su is both realistically flawed and comic book-esque. Previously reckless, his confinement and quest for answers leaves him crazed, most notably in the film’s final ambiguous frames. Replete with a wild mane, he’s consumed by mania and exists apart from reality – as his tormentor describes, he’s been expelled from one prison only to find his life on the outside is now another.
Based on a Japanese manga series of the same name, the film includes a number of its own truly macabre touches. Dangling its audience over a precipice from its rooftop opener to its uniquely twisted ending – via evil hypnotists, live cuisine and family affairs – the exhilaratingly out-there Oldboy can count itself amongst the most exciting films of the past decade.