OldBoy (2004)

With Spike Lee’s remake due in cinemas Friday, here’s my old review of the original for Movie Gazette

Revenge is a theme as old as western literature itself, but in the aftermath of 9/11 it has come under renewed cinematic scrutiny. Recently we have had the ironic postmodernism of Quentin Tarantino’’s Kill Bill volumes, the reactionary blood-letting of Jonathan Hensleigh’’s ‘The Punisher’ and Tony Scott’’s Man on Fire, and the environmentalist insanity of Korean director Jang Jun-hwan’’s Save the Green Planet! – but it is another South Korean film made just before all of these, Park Chan-wook ’s ‘Oldboy’, that offers the viewer the most thoroughgoing examination of vengeance seen since Ichi the Killer, while still managing to be a riotously unhinged black comedy, an engagingly twisted thriller and a horrific family tragedy.

Just released from police custody for drunk and disorderly behaviour on his own baby daughter’s birthday, all-round arsehole Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is abducted on the street, and wakes to find himself in a drab improvised prison cell, with only a television for company, and no idea why he is there. Still imprisoned a full year later, he learns from the TV news that his wife has just been murdered (and that the police suspect Oh himself, now a missing person) –- but it is only after a full fifteen years of solitary confinement that Oh is finally released, dazed, crazed and demonically driven by a determination to find out who did this to him and why, and to wreak the vengeance that he has had so long to contemplate. Helped by the attractive Mido (Gang Hye-jung), a young sushi chef whom he recognizes from her appearances on television, Oh sets out to track down his tormentors, but when he is challenged by a mysterious man (Yoo Ji-tae) to work out who he is in five days or else Mido will be killed, Oh learns that he is not the only one with revenge on his mind, and that some things are better forgotten.

Park Chan-wook is no stranger to the dynamics of revenge, having already explored them in his relentlessly downbeat ‘Sympathy for Mr Vengeance’ (2002), which also featured two men circling one another for a short-lived satisfaction destined to ensnare innocent outsiders. Yet ‘Oldboy’ is by far the more outlandish, and the funnier of the two films, and even features a redemptive, almost romantic ending (lovers arm-in-arm before a sublime mountainscape) – albeit one that leaves a decidedly unsavoury aftertaste. With its beautiful visual style, endless unpredictability, bold use of colour filters, and a main character who sports one of the most impressive shocks of hair since ‘Eraserhead’, ‘Oldboy’ is a tour-de-force of vibrant filmmaking from start to finish, manipulating the viewer like a master hypnotist, before revealing its final, awful dilemma. Oh, and if revenge really is a dish best served cold, ‘Oldboy’ proves once and for all that that dish is live, squirming octopus.

Summary Forget ‘The Punisher’ and ‘Man on Fire’ -– this mesmerising revenger’’s tragicomedy shows just how far-reaching the tentacles of mad vengeance can be.

Anton Bitel