“Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone.”
It’s no surprise that Oldboy was the Grand Prix winner at Cannes in 2004, given the highest praise by the President of the Jury, none other than Quentin Tarantino. Here we have two directors from the same vein: Tarantino and Park Chan-Wook, the latter being the mastermind behind this South Korean thriller about conspiracy, revenge, and anguish. It’s a picture that’s had film students salivating for over a decade now, and for good reason. Oldboy may not be the tidiest of films, but what it lacks in direction, it makes up for in style. Drawing various genre elements, visual choices, and plot points from throughout the history of cinema, the film is a thrill ride mashup which hits its marks in the most striking of ways.
Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik) is a businessman who is captured and held in confinement for 15 years, separated from his wife and daughter and imprisoned in what appears to be a hotel room. When he is suddenly released, Dae-Su is charged with figuring out the truth behind his capture: both who did it and why. On his quest for vengeance, he also finds solace in a young woman named Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung) who comforts Dae-Su and helps him uncover the truth. The film is a conspiracy, neo-noir, action thriller which reaches impressive heights in its technical composition while also speaking to your empathy as a human being.
The Tarantino connection stuck with me throughout my viewing, and I was reminded of some of my favorite films, the Kill Bill movies, the first of which came out in the exact same year. We’re given a story absolutely fueled by vengeance, an unrestrained determination to seek the truth and extract revenge. Oldboy makes the clever distinction between these two goals, however, often forcing its protagonist to choose between retribution and understanding. The film is likely more complex and hits more themes than anything Tarantino has made, though it’s not nearly as glossy. The connection is there, however. There’s a compromising of ideas in Oldboy, an uncomfortable visual scramble from scene to scene that works wonders for the conspiracy that the film presents. Just as Dae-Su can’t seem to catch his breath throughout the film, neither can the audience, and the movie is all the better for it.
I also really enjoyed the manner in which the story unfolds. There’s no hand-holding with this movie, and you’ll find yourself lost and disoriented throughout your first viewing. There’s a rich quality to the narrative where most characters only hold a piece of the entire story. There’s one clear villain but also separate minor villains and many obscure obstacles that Dae-Su must overcome on his quest. The pacing is quick and exciting while also constantly dropping information which adds new pieces to the greater mystery, clearly placing the film under the neo-noir umbrella. The final revelation is also staggering, triggering a powerful finale appropriate for a film of this scale.
Oldboy is not only a violent thrill ride, but it’s a film that reaches out to the soul. It’s a tale of human anguish, a tale of loss and heartbreak and penance that speaks to the human condition. It’s a film that grabs your attention with its eccentricities and then speaks to your humanity with its characters. Oh Dae-Su is a broken, flawed man, but he pleads in one of the film’s most touching lines: “Even though I’m no more than a monster – don’t I, too, have the right to live?” It’s a grand film with engaging themes and one that’s complex enough to warrant another watch in the future. It challenged and exceeded my expectations, and it’s a viewing experience I’m glad to have under my belt.
Films Left to Watch: 896