Watching Oldboy, you can’t help but feel some sympathy for those poor, put-upon folks at the BBFC. Fresh from its success at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, where it took the Grand Jury Prize and received a ringing endorsement from head juror Quentin Tarantino, Park Chan-Wook’s existential revenge thriller must have given the censors more sleepless nights than all of Tarantino’s pop-violent pulp fictions put together. Like Park’s previous films, Joint Security Area (2000) and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), the film takes a tangible pleasure in pushing back the outermost edges of cinematic taste and tolerance, interweaving its convoluted narrative with moments of truly eye-shredding violence: a live octopus being eaten in extreme close-up, a visceral street fight involving knives, lead pipes and a pin hammer, and the most excruciating sequence of film dentistry since Laurence Olivier’s antics in The Marathon Man. Old Boy is certainly not for the faint of heart, but strong stomachs will be rewarded with one of the most ambitious and audacious thrillers to emerge from Eastern cinema in recent years.
The film revolves around its central character, Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik), a Korean businessman who we first meet on a drunken night out on the streets of an unnamed city. Out of the blue, Oh Dae-Su is snatched by an unknown captor, and finds himself imprisoned in a bare-walled room with only a beaten-up television for company. Fifteen years pass, during which we follow Oh Dae-Su’s steady descent into madness and emotional dislocation. Watching television a year after his initial capture, he learns that his wife has been murdered and that the main suspect is none other than her missing husband. The next fourteen years pass in a haze of paranoid hallucinations and unexplained druggings at the hands of his captors, interspersed with Oh’s Cape Fear-style emotional and physical preparation for the revenge that may never come.
Suddenly, without warning, Dae-Su finds himself stumbling into blazing sunlight from a locked suitcase, released back into the outside world with only a sharp suit and a mobile phone to remind him of his ordeal. Driven by his blazing desire for revenge, and given five days by his mysterious captor to find out the truth, Oh Dae-Su sets out to discover the reason for his imprisonment with the help of a young waitress, and instead finds himself travelling back into his own past with devastating consequences.
Drawing on a complex range of influences from Tarantino, Sam Peckinpah and manga comics to the extremes of Japanese films such as Battle Royale and Ichii The Killer, Oldboy feeds directly into the general trend in Asian cinema for exploring extremes of violence, retribution and emotional anguish. Park’s visceral visual style conjures some genuinely disturbing moments, including one act near the end which is so horrific even the camera can’t bring itself to watch, drifting off to the left in a sly nod to the ear-slicing scene in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.
But while the violence and horror Oh Dae-Su is forced to endure undoubtedly account for many of the film’s most memorable moments, the cleverly-structured narrative and the gradual revelations surrounding Oh Dae-Su’s capture also deserve praise. Where many Asian thrillers inevitably descend into a protracted parade of one grisly event after another, Old Boy remains grounded in a satisfying Memento-style storyline that lends narrative weight to the film’s visual excess, and the final, excruciating revelation of Oh’s last punishment packs real punch as a result.
But it’s unquestionably Park’s bravura direction that will stay with you longest: the film is crammed with memorable visual sequences, from Oh’s bizarre encounter with a rooftop suicide to the final showdown with his nemesis in a super-stylish corporate apartment. Sharing Oh’s ordeal doesn’t always make for a pleasant cinematic experience, and this strange, chilly tale might not add up to all that much in the end – but like all the most exhilarating roller-coaster rides, Old Boy is more concerned with keeping you teetering on the edge of your seat than with worrying about what you’ll take away from the experience.
The film only received a limited run in UK cinemas, but recently received a nationwide release on DVD as part of the excellent Tartan Asia Extreme series. The two-disc special edition has some excellent supplementary material, including several commentaries, five making-of documentaries and an exclusive interview with the director by Mark Salisbury.