Oldboy is a powerful Korean film that is as mesmerizing as it is disturbing. It is one that would not be able to be distributed in America because of the nature of it’s sexuality and violence. It is about a man who seeks revenge after being captured and imprisoned for 15 years without knowing why. When released he is given 5 days to figure out why. They say that revenge is a dish best served cold, I think after 15 years his dish was still frozen. The plot may seem simple but it is told in a sophisticated, and at times extreme, manner.
A middle-aged man named Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is in police custody and is highly intoxicated at the police station. While belligerently shouting at the police, we learn that it is his daughter’s birthday and that he had gotten her a pair of angel wings as a gift. A friend comes to bail him out and as they stop to make a call from a photo booth, Oh Dae-su mysteriously disappears.
When he regains consciousness he finds himself in a hotel looking room with a desk, a bed and a TV. Although it looks like a hotel room it is more like a prison cell. He receives his food on a tray through a slot in the door and pleads with the man to tell him why they are imprisoning him. No reply. This is where he will spend the next 15 years of his life.
The TV becomes his only companion and learns from the news that his wife was murdered and his daughter has been adopted. To make manners worse, the police are after him as their lead suspect in the case. At least he now knows that the police are in no way associated with his current situation. So he starts making a list of all the people he is wronged in the past to try and come up with who might be behind this.
Keeping a man in solitary confinement for that long has drastic consequences on one’s mind. Partly out of frustration but mostly to keep an edge for revenge, he keeps up with martial arts like training in his room. He punches the solid wall until his hand can no longer take it.
After 15 years of chiseling away at the concrete wall with a chop stick, he finally breaks through a brick in a wall to the outside world. He figures it will be exactly a month before he is finally able to escape. Many exciting thoughts rush through his head such as; what will he eat when he gets out, how will he get his money, with all the car sounds he must be in a city but which one? But the most important question he asks himself is what floor is he on, it could very well be the 52nd floor. He decides he does not care, even if he falls to his death he will still be getting out.
Turns out he would not have to wait a month to escape because they release him before he could do so. Still he is given no answers as to why he was imprisoned or who was behind it. He goes to a sushi restaurant where he befriends a female chef he recognizes from his TV. Her name is Mido (Kang Hye-jeong) and she answers his request for something to eat that is alive. As he eats the live octopus, which by the way is not for the squeamish, and you cannot help but wonder if he is eating it just to feel what it is like to be alive again after being “dead” for nearly 15 years.
Mido and Oh Dae-su’s friendship spawns into a relationship and eventually love. She is willing to help with his cause and track down the person responsible for his imprisonment. After doing a bunch of legwork they find out that the person he is looking for is Lee Woo-jin (Yu Ji-tae). Oh Dae-su receives a threat from Lee Woo-jin that if he does not figure out in 5 days why he was imprisoned, every woman he loved will be killed. If he does, Lee Woo-jin will kill himself.
As with most films that have a mystery element, this film has quite an amazing twist that presents itself towards the end of the film. Sharing the details would of course ruin the entire film, which is why I will not divulge the spoilers in my review. The twist is what helps make this film so amazing to watch.
There were so many wonderful scenes throughout Oldboy, which range from suspense filled, violence driven and emotional. There is a scene where he hallucinates ants are crawling out of his arm which makes you wonder if the whole thing is all just in his head. At one point he fights a while room filled with guys with his fists and a hammer and is easily one of the better fight sequences to watch.
A couple of scenes are disturbing to sit through. One of those scenes is when Oh Dae-su eats a living octopus. Four actual live octopods were eaten for the scene, which gained a lot of controversy when the film was released, despite the fact eating live octopus in Korea is common. The other hard to watch scene is where we see very realistic teeth-pulling using the back of a hammer.
Director Park Chan-wook is very poetic throughout his film. The main character often refers to the world as the bigger prison. At the beginning we are presented with the quote, “Be it a grain of sand or a rock, in water they sink the same”, which reflects that Oh Dae-su does not know whether he did something small or big to Lee Woo-jin in order to get imprisoned. One that is repeated several times in the film is, “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and you will weep alone.” A quote that is true about finding answers, “You can’t find the right answer if you ask the wrong questions.”
Every once in a while there is a film you come across that blows your mind, Oldboy is one of them for me. It is not hard to praise it for it’s technical achievements, the intelligent script, the acting and the amazing plot twists. The film never feels too long as the story always seems to be advancing even towards the end. There is a reason why it won Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes Film Festival in 2004, it is filmmaking at it’s finest.