South Korea. Directed by Chan-wook Park, 2003. Starring Min-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hye-jeong Kang. 119 minutes.
Are you a good person?
Silly question, right? Of course you are. Look at you, your life. Your family loves you. Your friends consider you a boon companion. You work hard and your boss respects you. You donate to charity, you volunteer at the senior center.
Okay, maybe you have a couple of vices. You might drink too much, or spend more money than you can afford on luxuries. Perhaps you cheat on your spouse. But you probably don’t.
Or maybe you have a secret. Were you the school bully? Did you swipe money from the collection basket? Tell a lie that hurt someone else? Probably–causing trouble is what kids do–but it was so long ago that you can’t remember and even if you could it doesn’t matter, right? Right.
So what are you doing in this prison cell?
Sure, it looks like a hotel room–bed, television, chest of drawers, bathroom and shower–but don’t let that fool you. It’s not like you can just walk out whenever you want: the door is bolted shut from the outside, and the window is fake. Someone slides your meals through a hatch in the door.
Seems as if you’ve made an enemy over the years. Maybe you’re not the upstanding citizen you believe yourself you are, and you’ve made a lot of enemies. Someone put you here, but who?
And what will you do when you get out?
In Oldboy, Chan-wook Park’s classic 2003 thriller, protagonist Dae-su Oh finds himself in this very position. The film thoughtfully considers its twin themes of revenge and redemption. It’s easy enough to say “revenge brings catharsis” or “revenge doesn’t bring catharsis” but as a dramatic theme, revenge is a bit more complex than that and you can tell Park and his screenwriters put more thought into it than many other filmmakers might. It all culminates in a conclusion that left my eyes watering and my jaw agape.
The film’s streak of dark comedy (the suicidal man on the rooftop is a treat) shifts to a darker, more serious tone over the course of the film, with such subtlety that you might not even notice you stopped laughing. The script deals with some difficult subject matter, but treats it with sensitivity and respect instead of sensationalizing and exploiting it.
The film hinges on the performances of its four lead actors. Min-sik Choi is nothing short of phenomenal in the role of Dae-su. His physical presence is highly effective, particularly in the half-hour or so following his release from imprisonment. As befits a man who’s spent the last fifteen years of his life in a space no larger than a spacious bedroom, he holds himself very compactly. His movements are quick, his reflexes squirrelly. Throughout the film he moves like a tightly wound spring that could uncoil at any moment.
That’s enough to impress by itself, but Choi also has the emotive skills to sell such a complex character. You can readily buy him as a man whose decade and a half of imprisonment have driven him more than a little crazy, and his ability to change moods on a dime (note two scenes where he goes from rage to apologetic simpering in a matter of milliseconds) is magical.
His opposite number is Ji-tae Yoo as Lee, Oh’s enemy and the man behind his imprisonment. Lee starts the film as a straight-up villain but as the film progresses we learn more about the exact nature of the relationship between Oh and Lee and Yoo deftly maneuvers through the shift in sympathy. Hye-jung Kang is adorable as Mi-do, a young sushi chef who starts the film as Oh’s ally and who eventually becomes his lover. Dal-su Oh’s Mr. Park, the manager of the unique prison Dae-su finds himself in, is memorable and entertaining as the sneering baddie Yoo doesn’t allow himself to play.
Visually, the film is a delight to watch from start to finish. Park’s visual sense is impeccable and much of the visual imagery is delightful (Dae-su’s emergence from the steamer trunk is a particular favorite moment). He doesn’t skimp on the blood or the action; the violent sequences stick in the mind for days afterward (I’ll never look at a claw hammer the same way) and the fights are clever, inventive and engaging. I appreciated how Dae-su, while a proficient fighter, is never portrayed as a superhuman badass and this anchors the suspension of disbelief.
It may seem like I haven’t given a balanced overview of Oldboy by describing its negatives as well as its positives. The truth is that it’s one of those rare films in which I can find no flaws whatsoever. As far as I can tell, it comes as close to perfect as a movie can.