Film: Oldboy (Korean) (2003)

Director: Park Chan-wook

Cast: Choi Min-sik, Yu Ji-tae, Kang Hye-jeong

Asian films, particularly those coming from the eastern side more often than not revolve around revenge. It would not be wrong to say that revenge thrillers have become a prominent sub-genre. Having seen too many of such movies(mostly starring Bruce Lee), I had reached a state where I was consciously avoiding films with protagonists having a personal vendetta against politicians and druglords. I expected oldboy to be on these same lines, but when I heard Tarantino shower special praise upon this movie, it got me curious. And yes, it WAS a revenge film, and I fell in love with the genre all over again!

A man called Oh Dae-su disappears under mysterious circumstances, and we find him in a small room, connected to the world through a television. He has no idea about the reasons for his captivity nor does he know of any person who could do this to him. Later, his wife is murdered and he becomes the prime suspect. He begins to have hallucinations, partly because of his helplessness and isolation, and partly due to the gassing done by his captor. To pass his time, he learns shadowboxing by watching it on the television. He remains a prisoner for fifteen long years, after which he is suddenly set free, on the condition that he has to find the identity of his captor within five days. The rest of the movie follows the efforts of Dae-Su, who in collaboration with a sushi chef Mi-do, tries to find the person who held him captive as well as his motives. But all is not what it seems to Dae-su, and he has to take each step with extreme caution in this labyrinth of trickery and deceit.

Choi Min-sik is perfect in the role of a man who has been transformed from being a simple family guy to a detached, beast-like murderer. In fact, his character transformation forms a running theme in the movie. It is the role of a lifetime and Min-sik gives it his best. His confused expressions in the final scene conveyed all his pain, anguish, relief and love, and made it a memorably ambiguous ending. Yu Ji-tae seemed to be a little too young for his role, but nonetheless, he pitches in a sincere performance. However, his act is completely overshadowed by the performance of Min-sik. Hye-jeong looks sufficiently tender and innocent to evoke sympathy when the final act is played out. Hers was the character I felt for the most as she got needlessly caught between two people hellbent on destroying each other. Revealing anything more about her would mean spoiling the the shock-value of the last half an hour.

Oldboy is definitely not your usual revenge story, although it could very well have been so. The plot is centered on an act of vengeance, but the treatment and execution of the subject matter is unprecedented, and that’s what makes Oldoy rise above its contemporaries. Chan-wook creates an atmosphere of fear and violence which does not let up even once during the running time. Violence, though extremely glorified and stylized, is used as a means to convey the beastliness of Dae-su’s character, and is very integral to the plot. The camerawork is exceptional. The corridor fight sequence is a tremendous cinematographic achievement(it was taken in a single shot!!). Another scene which caught my attention was the ‘quick zoom in’ shot(reverse dolly??) on Dae-su during his meeting with his captor.

Initially, I had my doubts regarding its pretentiousness(stylized movies often tend to be low on substance), but scene after scene continued to amaze me and then the ending, which serves justice in its most poetic form, put all such doubts to rest. The genius of Chan-wook is visible all through and is instrumental in making Oldboy very deeply philosophical in meaning and lyrical in style.  If you are not averse to extreme forms of detached violence on celluloid and are open to exploring bold and unconventional themes, Oldboy should definitely feature somewhere in your coveted collection.