You know what I love? I love when I watch a movie that I barely know anything about, and it totally blows me away. This doesn’t happen often, maybe once or twice a year, but when it does, I’m left with a funny feeling in my stomach that can linger for hours or even days. It’s extremely satisfying to me to know that I can still be surprised, jarred, or shaken to my core by a film, because after having seen so many movies I do occasionally wonder if I’ve seen it all. Usually when I come upon one of these surprise cinematic experiences, I at least have some inkling of what I’m getting into. Films like Inception, Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project are good examples of this – the films are intentionally shrouded in mystery, and little clues are fed to us for months leading up to the movie’s release. But that wasn’t the case with the movie I watched last night. That movie was Oldboy, and as I hit play, I had no idea of the insanity that was about to unfold before my eyes.
A big part of the reason that I was unaware of just how bizarre, gruesome and mind-bending Oldboy is is due to the fact that nobody I know who has seen it has recommended it to me other than in passing. I guess the shock value is so great that, because the movie proves a rather grisly watch, people rarely say anything beyond “It’s pretty intense.” Certainly no one, upon hearing that I hadn’t seen it, immediately insisted that we watch it, which is usually the case with must-see cinema – sooner or later, someone will sit you down and show you what you’ve been missing. But not with Oldboy, which means that as the studio logos flashed across the screen, I was completely, utterly unprepared for the film I was about to watch.
Oldboy is the story of Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), a drunken, nasty businessman (and apparently something of a womanizer, though we never really see him do any womanizing) who, after being bailed out of the drunk tank by his friend Joo-Hwan (Ji Dae-han), suddenly finds himself abducted by a nameless captor and imprisoned in a hotel-room-like cell without any indication as to why he is there or for how long. Fed on fried dumplings, occasionally gassed to keep him from committing suicide, and with only a television to keep him company, Oh Dae-su slowly begins to lose his mind, hallucinating that ants are crawling out from under his skin and all over his body. Realizing that he will probably never be freed, Dae-su begins training to fight by shadowboxing and attacking a man he has drawn on the wall. He also steals a chopstick from one of his food trays and starts digging a tunnel through the wall. Then, after fifteen years of imprisonment, and only a month away from escape, Dae-su suddenly wakes up to find himself released onto a grassy roof. A total lunatic bent on vengeance for his capture and incarceration, having trained himself for fifteen years, and completely unaccustomed to normal life outside the walls of his cell, Dae-su embarks upon a journey of bloody revenge…but not all is what it seems, and even though he is outside his cell, his captors are still very much in control of his life. Now Dae-su must not only discover his captor’s identity, but also his motives, if he truly wants to understand the ordeal he has endured. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
I don’t even know where to begin reviewing Oldboy, as it’s just such a crazy movie that there’s so much to talk about. Director Park Chan-wook does a terrific job of always keeping the audience enthralled, confused and uneasy, and as I watched Oldboy I felt like I was in a constantly state of being off-kilter, as though my chair was perpetually tipped a little too far backwards. There’s a new reveal every ten minutes or so, and the result is that you can never settle in to the movie because just as you begin to grow accustomed to the latest development, something new and entirely unexpected shows up and throws you off again. The plot description I offered does nothing to convey the weird and surreal nature of the movie, and honestly, everything I mentioned transpires within the film’s first fifteen to twenty minutes. The best way I can think to describe the way in which the story unfolds is to compare it to a set of Russian nesting dolls. With each reveal or twist, the world of the movie expands, and we’re giving a bit more perspective on the events that are playing out. This nesting dolls style of storytelling reminded me of two French horror films that also had a new twist every scene: Martyrs and Inside (A L’Interieur). If you’ve seen either of those movies, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. If not, well, I’m afraid no amount of rambling on my part about how Oldboy‘s plot is constantly ambushing you will do it justice.
There are so many stand-out elements of Oldboy that to try and mention them all would be an exercise in futility, but there are a few things that deserve to be noted. First off is Choi Min-sik’s performance as Oh Dae-su. Min-sik is absolutely incredible, and I can’t even imagine the mindset he had to adopt in order to play the film’s protagonist. Because Dae-su is at the center of the film, he’s the only real companion that we as the audience are given, and he’s a complete lunatic. Oldboy is a tale told by a madman, and Min-sik portrays that madman with a strange balance of pathos, terror and unpredictability. It would take serious balls to play Dae-su, and this scene, wherein Dae-su nonchalantly devours a REAL, LIVING OCTOPUS proves that Min-sik has them.
The cinematography of Oldboy is amazing, too, and Park Chan-wook is constantly finding new ways to play with the cinematic viewing experience. The camera floats through some scenes, runs along beside characters in others, and jitters and jumps when the scene calls for a chaotic feeling. The innovative camerawork really is a joy to watch, and one of the best uses of it is during a three-minute, single-take fight scene where Dae-su takes on a small army of thugs in a narrow corrider. Note that there is not a single cut here!
Another scene that I thought had some excellent camerawork is one in which Dae-su is having a flashback to when he was in school, and we see a different actor playing the younger Dae-su while the older Dae-su follows him around. It’s one of those scenes where past and present collide, but there aren’t actually any special effects employed here since it’s two different actors playing the same character. But because we’ve become so invested in Dae-su’s journey and his desire to uncover the motives behind his capture, we instantly accept that he’s tailing a younger version of himself as he wanders through his memories. The camerawork is also great, as the camera becomes another observer of the action and chases young Dae-su alongside his older self. It’s a sequence that felt like it could have been very effects-driven, but wound up being simple in its design and yet just as effective.
Finally, I should mention that even though Oldboy is disturbing, gruesome and totally nuts, it’s also often darkly funny. Because Dae-su is so unaccustomed to dealing with other human beings, it leads to many situations where something that would traumatize a normal person doesn’t even phase him, and the result is that you actually end up chuckling as a suicide jumper crashes into a car behind Dae-su while he walks away unflinching. These brief moments of black humour make the ordeal of the movie easier to stomach, in a way, because they offer a temporary (VERY temporary) reprieve from the crazy goings-on. This moment, which takes places right before Dae-su massacres some people, is a good example:
After watching Oldboy, I can see why nobody sat me down to watch it, insisting that it’s a must-see. This isn’t the kind of movie that I can just recommend to anybody. Fans of shock cinema will probably adore it, but if you can’t stomach someone’s teeth being pryed out with a hammer, then you should avoid this movie at all costs. Unlike most cringe movies, though, all the violence and brutality serves a purpose here, and by the end of the film I felt as though Park Chan-wook had reached into my chest and violently squeezed my heart – and that’s no small accomplishment when it comes to filmmaking! Oldboy makes you ask yourself questions you would never have dreamed of considering, not the least of which is how you would be affected by fifteen years of solitary confinement. It’s a harrowing experience – understatement of the year – but if you have the will and the stomach to watch it, parts of Oldboy will stay with you forever. I know that years from now, I’ll still have that imagine of Dae-su munching on a live octopus burned onto my brain. But that isn’t to say that I regret seeing Oldboy; quite the opposite, actually. I regret not having seen it sooner.
4.5 out of 5