Take a sneak peak into a true modern cult classic from contemporary Korean cinema at its best as Andrew Nette shares his thoughts about Oldboy (2003). Directed by Park Chan-wook, Oldboy will be at this year's KOFFIA as part of the Modern Classics section.
It’s not the first time I’ve said this in print, but South Korea seems to be leading the pack at the moment in terms of producing top-notch crime cinema that’s completely unafraid to mix and match different genres.
Part blood soaked revenge movie, part psychological thriller, Oldboy was Park’s ninth film. Among his earlier efforts was the excellent military thriller J.S.A: Joint Security Area in 2000 and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance in 2002. But it was Oldboy that brought him international attention and, arguably, can be credited as the film that first exposed Western art house audiences to South Korean cinema.
Oldboy’s premise is deceptively simple. A thoroughly disagreeable, but in most other respects, average South Korean salary man gets kidnapped off the streets of Seoul and imprisoned without explanation for 15 years. Once released he is informed by an anonymous caller that he has five days to find out who imprisoned him and told to review his life for clues as to who it could be.
Choi Min-sik (who starred in I Saw the Devil) plays the kidnapping victim, Oh Dae-su. We see just enough of Oh’s day-to-day life in captivity to establish how horrific the experience is, no more. The artificial light, the sleeping gas that seeps into his room every time his captors need to shave or bath him, the same dumplings slid through a slot in the cell door, day after day.
During these scenes, Oh shifts between resignation, anger and near insanity. Every aspect of the experience is designed for maximum disorientation. Even the TV, his one link to the outside world, becomes an instrument of torture when it broadcasts a news report that his wife has been murdered and Oh is the main suspect.
Oh finally hatches a plan to escape, when, just as suddenly as he was captured he wakes up on top of an apartment block a free man. Well, technically free at least. He’s still wanted by the police for murdering of his wife and has been left severely deranged by his prison experience.
He wanders into a restaurant and strikes up a conversation with a child-like waitress called Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong). She takes him in and helps him track down clues as to who is responsible for kidnapping and imprisonment. Gradually, Oh comes to realise the sheer size and scale of the scheme that has involved him.
Like nearly every South Korean crime film I’ve seen, Oldboy has lot of blood flowing from many different parts of the body. I’ve often wondered why South Korean crime cinema is so full of characters fighting each other with instruments such as knifes, cleavers and hammers, when their American and European brethren just shoot each other. Perhaps it has something to do with the South Korean Government’s stringently enforced gun-control laws.
But while the violence in Oldboy is not for the faint hearted, it is accompanied by an examination of much more sophisticated themes. In particular, has his enforced captivity resulted in Oh losing his mind and becoming incapable of functioning in normal society or has his brutalisation equipped him to better deal with the world? And, as his anonymous tormentor taunts him over the phone at one point, has Dae-su simply traded a small prison for a much larger one?
Park Chan-wook depicts Seoul as a hellish place. A rain-soaked neon world of homeless people, lost youth and murderous gangsters, which lacks any sign of cohesion or state authority.
All the actors do a good job, but without a doubt the film belongs to Choi. His ability to switch between blood-soaked avenger and existentially traumatised victim is amazing to watch. His reaction to the news about his true relationship with Mi-do is particularly brilliant.
A US remake of Oldboy is underway, directed by Spike Lee and starring Elizabeth Olsen and Josh Brolin. While Lee is an accomplished director, I can’t see his reboot laying a glove on the original. Park’s film is a dark and unrelenting tale without so much as a shred of mercy in it.