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 & Spring, The 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. Park’s latest, Oldboy, a thrilling black comedy-drama, will likely one day be upheld as an entry point into this decade’s Korean cinema as John Woo’s The Killer is for Hong Kong’s cinematic resurgence in the American popular eye.
Oldboy’s 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 it’s 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 movie’s 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. It’s brutal and funny at the same time and a bravura piece of choreography.
The movie has a twist ending that’s 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 it’s 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-Su’s nemesis, Woo-jin Lee (Yu Ji-Tae), is the kind of demented mastermind that would shame all of Batman’s 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. Lee’s performance is full of cool indifference occasionally punctured by the humanizing pain underlying his character. However, it’s 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, it’s better not to take them too seriously. Park’s 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.