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South Korea 2003

Thriller, Drama, Action

Park Chan-wook

Choi Min-sik
Yu Ji-tae
Kang Hye-jeong
Ji Dae-han
Kim Byeong-ok
Oh Dal-su
Yun Jin-seo

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Story: Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is kidnapped and held prisoner for 15 years in one single room in which his only contact to the world outside is a TV. From the news he gets to know that his wife has been killed and that he is wanted as the murderer. However, after a seemingly endless time he suddenly is released and a mysterious person (Yu Ji-tae) at a phone invites him to play a game. He has to find out why he was imprisoned for such a long time and he has only a few days to do so, otherwise his new friend Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong) would die.
Driven by revenge Dae-su goes after some clues with the help of Mi-do about why he was imprisoned and above all else by whom. Disconnected from the real world and almost emotionless he chases his tormenter, but Mi-do can be his link to the real world, helping him as best as she can.
Dae-su has to work through his whole past and meanwhile he gets aware that he himself was everything but a good person. Nonetheless, his opponent seems to be someone unknown to him, who furthermore pulls all the strings in this deadly game. Carefully planned and with nearly unlimited resources he always seems to be one step ahead of Dae-su...

Review: There are movies which are so good and unique that you just don't want to write a review about them, because you know that you can't do them justice. "Oldboy" is one of those rare pieces.
The theme of revenge is everything but groundbreaking, yet director Park Chan-wook manages to breathe new life into the subject and to shed light on it from a different perspective, giving the movie something inimitable this way. The technical perfection with which Park takes on his work is impressive. Yet, he tried to avoid making his movie look too much like Art-House Cinema, as it was still the case with his first installment of the "Vengeance"-trilogy "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance", which did stand on its own and is not linked to this part in any way.
"Oldboy" without a doubt is art at its best, but we also get what most moviemakers seem to forget to implement in their movies, when making art: great, captivating and disturbing entertainment!

Especially since the film works its way through several genres, it's everything but a true action movie. Here, we don't get to see bringing up the big guns and everything being shot in good old Schwarzenegger/Stallone fashion. "Oldboy" first and foremost is a drama about an individual who has to reflect about his own life in order to find out why he deserved to be imprisoned for 15 years. Interestingly enough, we aren't told Dae-su's story of his past in small episodes. Actually, there is only little we know about him, yet it is enough for us to make our conclusions and have a certain picture of him.
Dae-su was a drinker, who had problems with his wife and who already was the barefaced boy, who liked to play pranks in school. In the course of his life he made quite some enemies and so Dae-su is in no way your typical "hero" with whom we sympathize when he takes his well deserved revenge.
Additionally, his opponent also isn't your common bad guy. That's what makes Park's movies so special. His characters aren't black or white but are moving somewhere along different palettes of grey. Every one of them has his own motives why he is doing the things he has to do and so "Oldboy" feels frighteningly realistic.

Dae-su stops at nothing to reveal the mystery of his imprisonment and the fate of others doesn't mean much to him (for example think about the scene with the suicide guy). Nevertheless the directors manages with ease to make us sympathize with him. This is the more astonishing as Dae-su has become very egoistic and sometimes even emotionless in the course of his captivity. He is eaten up with feelings of revenge, but more important than to kill his tormenter is his wish to find out the reason why. The director plays with this fact very well as he does with lots of other similar ones, and so Dae-su actually has to let his opponent go the first time he meets him. Because what's the meaning of finally taking revenge, when he doesn't know the reason for his punishment, after all?
Park Chan-wook brings up lots of questions. First, you gotta ask yourself how to continue with life after finally having taken your bloody revenge. Even if Dae-su didn't want to anymore, for whatever reasons, he just has to take revenge because this is all he has lived for the last 15 years. But what to do after this? Will he become an empty shell, since there is apparently no meaning to life for him anymore? This question gets more than one answer, but there are also lots of other ones begging for a solution. Moreover, there is also the subject love with which is dealt in a very controversial way.

The bond the viewer weaves to Oh Dae-su is a special one and this is mainly so because of the impressive acting performance of Choi Min-sik. With incredible intensity he conveys the whole set of emotions, from hate to grief and love. His physical efforts are also awe-inspiring. Not only does he do nearly all his stunts himself, brawls in best Korean fist-fights through several enemies and is thrown through glass vitrines, but he also actually ate a living octopus in the famous Sushi-Bar scene...
Even though Choi's performance remains unbeatable, at least Yu Ji-Tae ("Ditto", "Into the Mirror") can give a very convincing and multilayered portrayal as his opponent. As the cool-thinking businessman he has nearly an almighty aura around him and yet we know that he has a great pain deep inside him that drives him to do the things he does.
Kang Hye-jeong's ("Rules of Dating") role as Mi-do unfortunately is somewhat neglected and so she remains just the little assistant and Dae-su's mental aider. However, most of the supporting cast is very good, too. Especially Bodyguard Han and his cool-as-hell appearance will burn itself into your mind.

Director Park is a master of his craft and there is a reason why he is on top of my personal list of best directors! His pictures are precious composed artworks and he doesn't flinch to make use of some very uncommon camera angles and shots every now and then. This gives his movie a special style, which doesn't only make the work unique, but as already said is very stylish, too.
The gloomy brownish colour of the picture, the very well elaborated sets and lots of extras in camera movements or the genius fadings make this movie an astonishing experience. "Oldboy" always holds onto his somewhat dark style, which perfectly captures the uncompromising harsh atmosphere.
One of the numerous highlights is a fighting scene in a long corridor between Dae-su and various thugs, which is shot in one single several minutes long shot. Aside from this the movie offers so many other things. A lot of details may only be noticed after a second, third, etc. viewing. To say that one composed this film with a great eye for details nearly is an understatement.
At some points the movie shows some very brutal scenes, even though there isn't actually much shown on screen. Yet, Park has a talent for playing with the audience's imagination and so it's more the emotional kind of harshness that is somewhat shocking.

"Oldboy" is in fact a character-driven and explorative drama, but there are also some action scenes and strong thriller aspects to be found. So it is no surprise, that the pacing is always adequately fast and that there is a high tension created throughout. Additionally, there is also some great humour. Most of the time it's very black humour and the main part of it is based on Oh Dae-su's deadpan and sarcastic monologues with which the movie can strengthen the sympathies we develop towards him. Besides, Choi Min-sik's meanwhile almost legendary haircut is also good for some laughs.
Moreover, the score is very nice and is always fittingly accompanying the on-screen events in an unusual waltz-like way and can be emotionally very captivating if it has to be.
The story is really good and offers a lot of unexpected turns. To dive deep inside the twisted minds of the different characters is a fun ride in a sick way, of course, but at the end it has to be pointed out that this movie isn't something for the soft-hearted. The ending will completely catch you off guard and above all else is pretty shocking! One of the best twists I ever came across, especially since it all gets very emotional without feeling artificially melodramatic. It's incredible thrilling and at the end all makes a turn in a direction we never would have imagined! This just has to give you goose bumps.

"Oldboy" is a perfectly composed action-drama, which doesn't seem to have any flaw at all! At least I can't find any. Park Chan-wook with his inventive and wonderful pictures lets different genres blend into one another with ease and with the help of the great actors creates a high in-depth level of the characters. The theme of revenge is dealt with in a way like it has never been done before, the story is captivating and unpredictable, but above all else the technical perfectionism is breathtaking.
Park Chan-wook created a disturbing masterwork, which surely deserves to be called one of the best movies of all time!

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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