For this week’s I’ve Never Seen feature, I tried keeping an eye out for any modern classics which I may have missed. Given that I was born in 1990 (sorry), age can forgive me for missing out on almost any number of monumental releases, but this time I wanted to choose one I definitely had no excuse for avoiding. As someone with a penchant for both manga and East Asian cinema, it came as a surprise even to myself that Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy had passed me by, to the extent where I think I almost began to believe I had watched it. The film is a violent, brutal tale of revenge based loosely on the Japanese manga of the same name and has garnered a number of prestigious accolades including the Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes in 2004. And, of course, like any successful international release, expect to see a western treatment surface next year by none other than Spike “School Daze” Lee.
The film tells the story of Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) – an obnoxious, womanising, heavy drinker who is kidnapped and imprisoned for 15 years in a private jail for reasons beyond his comprehension. The opening scenes depict the creeping passage of time as he struggles to cope in the cell, where he relies solely on the television for education, information and distraction, whilst repenting for a life of wrongdoings. His fate is changed by a simple culinary utensil and this instils a drive within Dae-su to escape by any means necessary, as well as to identify and exact revenge on his captors. Like any good thriller, the film unravels at a deliberate pace to keep the viewer guessing throughout and I was pleasantly surprised that nothing felt forced narratively or completely out of the left field (even the ending, to which I’ll return later).
One of the most striking elements of the film is its cinematography – from the 70s hotel-style decor of the prison cell, to the piercing reds and purples that break up the grubby, green, washed-out hue of the frame – the film is rarely anything short of a delight to look at. Park makes use of some really inventive shots in which to compose sequences, such as a fantastic corridor fight scene in the second act where the camera tracks along the side of the action, giving the viewer a perspective which resembles a 16-bit side-scrolling, 2D video game. The final result took three days to perfect and exists as one single, uninterrupted take as Dae-su fights his way to the other side. There’s a sense of style that, to me, heavily resembled the likes of David Fincher or Quentin Tarantino, and the film definitely takes a leaf from the latter in its use of violence.
Choi Min-sik’s performance as Dae-su is a testament to his versatility as an actor. Not only did he lose a considerable amount of weight in order to play the role convincingly, he also gracefully navigates the roller-coaster of emotions that the character undergoes over the course of the unfolding mystery. The third act sees Dae-su in an utterly helpless state — distraught and destroyed, both physically and emotionally — and it is one of the most difficult-to-watch scenes in a film I have ever experienced thanks to Min-sik’s energetic, earnest performance.
But what about the key to the piece? The mystery itself? This is where the film becomes slightly more controversial (and herein, expect major spoilers territory). As the plot unravels, Dae-su uncovers the fact that he has a deeply personal connection to the captor — Lee Woo-jin — with whom Dae-su attended high school and, importantly, observed the boy and his sister developing an incestuous relationship. The young, naive Dae-su could not contain the secret which spread across the campus, causing Woo-jin’s sister, Soo-ah, to commit suicide — an action which Woo-jin blamed on Dae-su. In order to exact revenge on Dae-su, Woo-jin hypnotised both Dae-su and Mi-do (a young sushi chef whom Dae-su enters a sexual relationship with over the course of the film) before releasing both from captivity. The hypnosis triggered a series of events leading the two to meet and develop a relationship, however the twist on the tale is that Mi-do is the daughter of Dae-su, and that Woo-jin had been orchestrating the plan for years. Heavy stuff.
Up until this reveal, the film had been particularly successful in having believable, surprising and original ways in which to maintain tension and intrigue. Apart from one suggestion of hypnosis before his escape from the prison, there was little to suggest to the viewer that characters and motivations were anything more than what they appeared on the surface. To a large extent, it was a device that reminded me a lot of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, where Michael Caine’s character makes an off-handed remark near the end of the first act – that in order to perform the illusion as competently as Christian Bale managed to, there had to be two of them. Simple. The rest of the film diverted and became Hugh Jackman’s mad journey to prove the existence of magic when all along, the answer was simply that Bale’s character was one of two twins. In a similar manner, the suggestion that there was some sort of hypnosis right up front planted a seed of doubt in my mind that was all but forgotten as I found myself caught up in the events as they unfolded. I did not feel cheated at the explanation as it was given, instead that there was a poetic closure to the horrific tale as the credits rolled.
Oldboy definitely isn’t for the squeamish or the faint-hearted – it’s a visceral, harrowing story of revenge, chock-full of fight sequences, torture, sex and octopus-chomping (no, really). If you are able to stomach the visual material there’s an original, well-acted, beautiful thriller to be found underneath that fans of thriller, horror, action and drama should love. After watching this, I am more than keen to jump into Chan-wook Park’s spiritual prequel and sequel films – Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance – I just may not be able to pick myself back up off the floor after them.