Oldboy


Year 2003

Min-sik Choi as  Oh Dae-Su
Hye-jeong Kang   as Mi-do
Ji-tae Yu as Lee Woo-Jin
Dae-han Ji as No Joo-hwan
Byeong-ok Kim as Mr. Han  
 
Director - Chan-wook Park  
Writer - Joon-hyung Lim

 

A truly fine film noir. This would have made it into the At Least Once Category but for two things. The first is that the subject matter is intense and taboo. The second is that there are some plot devices used that flaw the pacing.

Still, if you can handle the empathy that the writer and director inflict upon the audience, then this movie is rewarding and definitely worth watching.

This well designed, nearly perfectly plotted, detail oriented gem is worthy of all of the accollades bestowed upon it. It tells a story of revenge in the same manner that a snowball rolling down a slope becomes an avalanche.

Originally, I'd purchased the movie because of references to one particular scene. It was mentioned in the same context as piano wire in Audition. I thought that it would be similar in tone and depth. Although similar in atmosphere, the degree of complexity in Oldboy far outpaces the reach of Audition.

It wasn't until I wrote the commentary that I noticed that the movie is based on a comic book by Nobuaki Minegishi. I thought that Sin City or even Iron Man were the gold standards for turning a comic book into a movie. Move over Sin City and Iron Man!

In this film, a boorish man is abducted and imprisoned in a dilapidated hotel for fifteen years. What keeps him going, eventually, is his need for revenge. He trains for that in solitary. He keeps himself fit for the encounter he knows will come. He plots his escape. Without a word, he's released as suddenly as he was taken prisoner.

His primary abductor, the one who masterminded and financed the act, is an intelligent and wealthy antagonist and his righteous attitude makes him sympathetic. The protagonist is less intelligent and always, unknowingly, one step behind the mastermind. He's only sympathetic because of the way he was treated. Without that, he's barely likable.

This dichotomy makes the movie intriguing, although the identity of the villain is not revealed for most of the movie.

What stuck with me about this movie wasn't the intensity of the scenes, although the tension is ratcheted up by a master director. Neither was it the realistically grimy and seedy settings that added to the credibility of otherwise incredible events. What I can admire best is the way things just kept unraveling convincingly.

Let's start with the final revalation/confrontation. We'll call it the over-the-top Action E.

Why did Action E happen at all? At first, you're led to believe that it is in response to previous Action D, which is related as a flashback. In another tale, like Angels and Demons that would have been enough. But here, when you realize that Action D couldn't have resulted in Action E all by itself, you question the cause and the effect of Actions D and E. You realize that it would have taken more than simply Action D. So do the author and director and they're not expecting you to be any less discerning than they are. They also introduce Action C as another past cause. Still not enough? What about also Addiing Actions B and A. Now they've got something convincing.

Forgive me for not being specific, but I don't want to introduce spoilers. I do want to show how cleverly, believably the background of the story is constructed, though.

But what happens after Action E? Is it the end? The writer and director know that this is not sufficient. Since the whole point of the movie is that actions have consequences, what are the consequences of Action E? Ka-blooey! Talk about destruction in the wake of an avalanche! But it all holds together. It's beautiful the way each individual snowflake is without a flaw.

After waxing so prosaic, what's to fault? Well, sometimes the way the plot moves along doesn't make sense. There are a couple of things that are comparable to Detective Marlow's phone ringing when he hits a dead end. These could be explained as the villain's playing a cat and mouse game with Dae-Su but they're not discussed during the final denouement, so they aren't machinations of the villain.

Like all good film noirs, there is a wrap up speech by the villain. It fit. The villain carried around a lot for fifteen years and he needed to unload on the person he blamed for his grief. That little lecture could have been used for filling in a lot of loose cause and effect situations.

For example, how did Dae-Su know who to go to for the whereabouts of his daughter? How did he know which delivery boy to follow from the restaurant? How did the word "Evergreen" get introduced? How did Dae-Su know Mi-do's password?

There are other coincidences, but they are explained. Still, when they happen, you wonder, "What are the odds of that happening?" and it detracts from the experience because either it doesn't flow or it goes against human nature.

One thing that I still don't believe is that Dae-Su can kick the crap out of over a dozen of his warden's captors, especially since they are younger than him and he has a knife sticking out of his back.

In my commentary on The Black Cat I'd mentioned that I didn't think anyone could make a movie like that again given today's climate of mediocrity. I think that Oldboy is the spiritual successor to The Black Cat with many parallels. In both, revenge sought for fifteen years in prison is the motive. In both, there are many Freudian impetuses driving the actions of the hero and the villain. In both, the hero is not easily liked and performs acts that are anything but heroic.


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