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Korea 2003
Directed by
Chan-wook Park
120 minutes
Rated R

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Oldboy (2003)

Synopsis: Oh Daesu (Choi Min-Sik) has been imprisoned for 15 years although he does not know why. Finally released, he obsessively begins to search out the person responsible in order to have his revenge.

It is instructive to compare Park’s Oldboy to the latest Hollywood multiplex offering, Constantine. Both are based on comic books, both are genre films, both have central characters who are blighted by dark forces, both are on missions to discover The Truth and are both accompanied by attractive women. But whereas Constantine adheres to the comforting myth of the all-conquering male heroically battling external evils, Park’s film takes us on an inquisitorial interrogation of his central character’s self-righteously constituted mission. The comparison indicates tellingly just how predictable and self-deceptively reassuring American film has become.

Park is a youngish Korean director who had commercial success with the impressive action whodunnit movie Joint Security Area (2000). He then began a trilogy of films based on the theme of revenge, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002), this film, and the third, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance which is still in post-production. If the latter matches the intensity and kinetic brilliance of Oldboy, Park will have cemented a position in the pantheon of great film-makers.

The revenge film, which has the central character’s self-defined moral outrage burning at its core is always good for intense performances. Lee Marvin’s turn in Point Blank (1967) remains a bench-mark and John Boorman’s direction was consonantly hard and focused. Oldboy has that same intensity but it is narratively more convoluted, morally less linear, aesthetically richer and features a compelling performance by Choi Min-Sik, by turns both fearless and afraid, a warrior on the path of vengeance and a man caught in the meshes of something that he eventually comes to realize he does not understand. This ability, which has been completely lost by Hollywood, to show the concurrency of strength and weakness in the male hero, the slow stripping away of his illusory belief in his transcendence is the one of the main strengths of the film. But only one.

From Choi’s remarkable incarnation of Daesu to the almost melodramatic use of Western classical music (including a marvelous frieze-like set piece in which Daesu fights a horde of thugs to the strains of … was it Mozart?), despite being brutal in parts and certainly testing for the squeamish, despite its preoccupation with the uglier, desperate aspects of human experience, Oldboy is an outstanding achievement on all levels, one that blows away all standards for the revenge genre. Do not expect to be pleasantly entertained but do not miss it.

FYI:  Ironically, the film was re-made in 2013 with Josh Brolin in the lead and Spike Lee of all people directing.  Needless to say it wasn't a patch on the original.




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