Oldboy (2003) – Review

A legendary tale of brutal vengeance.

Netflix’s Daredevil, in its first season, contained a pivotal scene – a hallway fight, shot spectacularly in a single take, packing an impressive punch and sparking a whole net of posts online about it being one of the greatest fight scenes ever (myself included). Then I heard gruntled whispers of a film called Oldboy which ‘done it first’. After years of pressure, I finally watched it, or more appropriately, experienced it.

Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is spontaneously imprisoned for no apparent reason. That abduction lasts a staggering 15 years, until he is released – without reason. He traces down his kidnapper to find out the reason for his imprisonment, to which he is told he must figure out the mystery in five days, or the girl who has helped him so far will die (Kang Hye-jung).

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© – Tartan Films

The South Korean feature carries a legacy which has cemented it as a work of art. The hype it garnered in the lead up to my eventual viewing still isn’t enough; it is an absolute masterpiece. We open with Dae-su hanging a man of the side of a building by his tie, to the tune of a punky score that’ll have you bobbing your head in time. It then cuts back to before the abduction, showing him to be a shambolic drunk.

We spend a reasonable amount of time with Dae-su while he’s in his ‘room’, witnessing the range of emotions from shock, panic, hysteria and sadness to madness, suicidal, acceptance and rage. It’s a character building sequence, showing our lead at the pits of depravity to the unstoppable force he becomes to pursue his kidnapper.

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© – Tartan Films

Park Chan-wook’s direction is sublime, blending classic touches with next generation techniques, which when considering its release in 2003, is far ahead of its time. The score is a peculiar one, sometimes feeling bizarrely out of place, but it critically strays away from being overly theatric in, I believe, an effort to attract focus more to the storytelling, which by the way, is riveting. At two hours, it’s a well contained and timed noir that never overplays the mystery, in return for genuine astonishment. There are moments of technical gimmickry in cuts, but the film has a living, fresh feel to it even 14 years on, so it becomes almost a non-issue. He keeps the attention close on our main character, keeping his face in shot the majority of the time. Through the destructive events in the film, Dae-su always feels at the core. Admittedly, the party piece hallway fight is a masterwork of choreography, the directors pièce de résistance and a triumph at making Oldboy more than a memorable thriller. The violence is impactful throughout, but never sinking to the point of gore-fetish delights such as Hostel and Saw. It’s artistic and serves a purpose – the world hasn’t been kind to him, so he’ll return the favour.

The dynamic between Dae-su and his companion Mi-do is a consistent point of intrigue. Their twisty ride through the narrative will keep you on your toes, and when the film reaches its completely devastating climax, it’ll eat away at you like a recurring nightmare. The performances across the board as spectacular, with Hi-jung oozing with a sense of innocence, You Ji-tae a wicked yet complex villain, and Min-sik expertly portraying a versatile, bloodthirsty man who is deserving of our sympathy – but remember, everyone has a past.

A jaw-dropping seminal masterwork, blending heart-wrenching physical and emotional brutality.

Rating: ★★★★★

 

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