With Oldboy (Oldeuboi) about to get the “Hollywood” re-make treatment I decided it was time to talk about what I thought about the original film. Directed by Chan-wook Park as part two of his ‘Vengeance Trilogy‘ (the first being Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and the last being Sympathy for Lady Vengeance).
Oldboy is based on the Japanese manga written by Nobuaki Minegishi and Garon Tsuchiya. It stars Min-sik Choi (Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, The Quiet Family), Hye-jeong Kang (Three… Extremes, Battle Ground 625) and Ji-tae Yu (Into the Mirror, Lady Vengeance) as the three main protagonists.
At the beginning of the film Oh Dae-su (Min-sik Choi) is in a police station. He has been arrested for being drunk and disorderly. He is still drunk. In the first few minutes of the film Oh Dae-su is angry, funny, forlorn, indignant and showing off the angel wings he has bought his daughter. We can see that despite his drunken state Oh Dae-Su is the Korean “Every-man” who loves to talk, have fun and loves his family.
After he is released from the police station, he stops to call his wife and tell her he is on his way home. As his wife answers the phone, Oh Dae-Su is rendered unconscious and wakes up in a hotel room. This hotel room will be his home and prison for the next fifteen years.
Oh Dae-Su’s only contact with the outside world is the television in his room. He learns by watching the television that his wife has been murdered (he is the main suspect) and that his daughter has been given to foster parents. At first Oh Dae-Su begs to the unseen person who delivers his meals to him through a slot in the door. He then starts hallucinating and attempts suicide.
He attempts to keep track of time by marking scratches on the wall. He also starts ‘shadow boxing’ and punching his wall to toughen his fists. He starts digging a hole in the wall to escape.
Oh Dae-Su is completely reliant on the television, It is his friend, teacher and lover; at one point he masturbates to the young women he sees on the television. Watching him in his room, we can see that his sanity has been stretched to it’s limits.
Just as Oh Dae-su is about to escape, he is knocked out with gas. He awakens on a roof in a huge steamer trunk. He has been given a mobile phone (cell phone) a new suit and some money. He is now desperate to find out who imprisoned him for fifteen years and why. His ultimate goal is revenge.
The first thing Oh Dae-Su does when he gets off the roof is to enter a sushi resturant. He tells the sushi chef, Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang) that he wants to eat something alive. She serves him live octopus. Immdiately after eating the octopus Oh Dae-Su passes out. Mi-do takes him to her apartment to look after him.
When he awakens, Oh Dae-Su tells Mi-do his story and she decides to help him. In one of the funniest scenes in the film, Oh Dae-Su, who is desperate for sex breaks into the bathroom while Mi-do is on the toilet. She had just previously told him not to ‘try anything’ and she backs this up by beating Oh Dae-su until he gives up.
Later she explains that even though she has been among people she too has been alone. The two wind up becoming lovers and Oh Dae-Su tells her to pray for a younger lover next time since he is so mucholder than she is.
The two then play detective to figure out where Oh Dae-Su was kept captive. As he was fed Chinese dumplings for fifteen years from a Blue Dragon restaurant they go around to every Blue Dragon where Oh Dae-Su samples the dumplings. Once he finds the dumplings he figures out where he was kept prisoner. He tricks his way in and tortures his old warden until he tell him who locked him up.
Oh Dae-Su then has to fight his way out of the hotel against an army of thugs. Armed only with a hammer and his fists he makes his way out of the hotel and onto the street.
Now that he knows who his captor was, Woo-jin Lee (Ji-tae Yu), he finds that Lee wants him to figure out why he was incarcerated. Oh Dae-Su learns that he and his captor went to the same school and that Lee was having incestuous sex with his own sister. Oh Dae-Su sees them at it and tells his best friend, just as he (Oh Dae-Su) is leaving the school for good, with the warning that he should not tell anyone. His best friend of course tells everyone and Lee’s sister kills herself.
I’ve spent a lot of time setting up the main plot of the film. But I haven’t talked about what I think of as the film’s “set pieces.” It is the set pieces that have made this film’s popularity grow and made an impression on everyone who has seen it.
Set piece number one is that long violent, and punishing, corridor fight scene. It is a true show-stopper. It was done in one take, over a three day time span. You can tell that the actors and stuntmen are exhausted. Some of the “half-hearted” punches and kicks that are clear misses are due to the tiredness of the players instead of poor choreography.
Set piece number two is the scene where Oh Dae-Su cuts off his tongue. At the end of the film, he does this in order to pay his “debt” to Lee for inadvertently causing Lee’s sister to kill her self. He is also doing it in a last ditch attempt to save Mi-do from finding out that he, Oh Dae-Su is her father.
The whole theme of the film is two-fold, vengence (obviously) and incest. It really comes as no surprise that this won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and that Quentin Tarantino lavished so much praise on the film.
Oldboy is a Korean crowd pleaser. It helped open the door for Korean films to the rest of the world. In my opinion Chan-wook Park’s other films in his vengeance trilogy were better. Oldboy for all it’s colour and complex plot, was a bit choppy at the end. His other two films Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Lady Vengeance were tighter and more neatly tied up at the end of each respective film.
Still Oldboy has shot to the top of the list of ‘must see’ Korean films and rightfully so. It is as good a place as any to start in regards to Korean cinema and certainly will not disappoint the novice Korean film fan.
I love Korean cinema and adore Min-sik Choi as an actor. I would have to say that as of this moment, I think South Korea outshines the rest of the world with their film making. I am probably a little prejudicial in this claim as I think that Korea has two of the best directors in the world right now in Chan-wook Park and Jee-woon Kim.
I will of course watch the re-make. I am a huge fan of Spike Lee’s work and I think that Josh Brolin is one of the best actors in the business. It will be interesting to see what Mr Lee does with his version of the story.
If I had to give it a rating, I’d have to say a 3.5 out of 4 stars. Watch it and you’ll see why Chan-wook Park is the film critic’s darling.
- I Saw the Devil (2010): A Clash of Wills (mikesfilmtalk.com)
- Crying Fist (2005): Down But Not Out (mikesfilmtalk.com)
- Oldboy (2003) Review (oldgamereviewer.com)
- Sharlto Copley Cast in ‘Open Grave,’ Confirmed For Spike Lee’s ‘Oldboy’ (deadline.com)
- The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008): A Kimchi Western (mikesfilmtalk.com)
- Josh Brolin Asked Oldboy Director For Permission To Remake It (perezhilton.com)
- Spike Lee Get’s His OLDBOY Villain And It’s Sharlto Copley! (thepeoplesmovies.com)
- Memorable ‘Long Single Take’ Scene of Films (filmrecord.wordpress.com)