Top Ten World Cinema #9: Oldboy

Oldboy

My love affair with world cinema began nearly a decade ago when I watched French hit, Amelie (2001). Previously I had been reluctant to watch any film with subtitles, worried that it would hinder my enjoyment of the film. How wrong was I to be so naive? Since Amelie I have spent more time in the world cinema section at HMV than any other part of the shop and enjoyed a range of films from South America, Africa, Europe and East Asia. Discussing all my favourites would take many blogs but over the next ten days I will share what are currently, for me, the Top Ten World Cinema films. The standard of world cinema is very high with such gems as Ikiru (1952) and Let The Right One In (2008) missing out on the Top Ten. For those of you that haven’t tried world cinema I hope some of these films will be of interest. Those of you that are veterans in this field, I’m sure you won’t agree with all of my choices but I’ve no doubt you’ll appreciate a celebration of what is often an overlooked section in DVD shops.  

Oldboy (2003)

OldboyChan-wook Park’s 2003 South Korean film was the second in his Vengeance trilogy – the others being Sympathy For Mr Vengeance (2002) and Sympathy For Lady Vengeance (2005). Oldboy is the superior of the three films by a long distance, portraying a compelling mystery, revenge and a very surprising but brilliant conclusion. Uncompromising in some of its violence, it is still a must see before Hollywood proceeds with their remake, which will be unlikely to remain completely faithful to Chan-wook Park’s version, particularly with the controversial twist at the end.

The film follows the story of Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) who is out drinking one night and causing general disruption. After being bailed out of prison by a friend, Dae-su Oh is kidnapped. When he wakes he finds himself locked in a room without windows with a bed, TV and toilet available and food brought to him by unknown captors who speak no words to him or offer any explanation. Intermittent visits are paid to Dae-su Oh by his captors to shave him and cut his hair but only after he has been gassed. After 15 years of captivity Dae-su Oh is released and later contacted on a cell phone. The voice on the other end claims to be his captor and gives him 5 days to work out why he was imprisoned. If Dae-su Oh is successful his captor promises he will kill himself. Should he fail, Dae-su Oh will see his new friend, Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang), killed instead.

Oldboy is a tense and gripping film throughout. After Dae-su Oh’s release from his confines the story quickly gathers pace and the mystery of why he was incarcerated becomes ever more intriguing. His captor, Woo-jin Lee (Ji-tae Yu), holds all the cards throughout, making Dae-su Oh jump through hoops to uncover the truth. In his pursuit of vengeance, Dae-su Oh encounters the gang that kept him prisoner and fights his way through them all in a memorable scene that plays out like a beat-em up arcade game with the camera side scrolling through the vicious exchange. Dae-su Oh negotiates the entire gang with a claw hammer and his fists! Inevitably, Dae-su Oh has to look deep into his past for the reasons behind his capture and the consequences are devastating.

The end of the film sees Dae-su Oh finally confront his kidnapper and the truth is finally revealed. The genius of Oldboy is that prior to making his way for a final confrontation with Woo-jin Lee, Mi-do tells Dae-su Oh to make sure his captor is the one on his knees begging for forgiveness. Once Dae-su Oh learns why he was imprisoned by Woo-jin Lee the ending plays out very differently to what the audience will have expected. Our perception of Dae-su Oh, who we have followed throughout the film hoping for his success, is dramatically shaken by the truth. Many will still be with him in his pursuit of vengeance but others may feel there is nothing to be sympathetic about. Oldboy is a stunning tale of revenge but that ending that challenges our empathy for Dae-su Oh is the key to making this a masterpiece of world cinema.

Top Ten so far:-

9) Oldboy

10) City of God

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Dave Brown

I was born in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, England and have always been a bookworm and enjoyed creative writing at school. In 1999 I created the Elencheran Chronicles and have been writing ever since. My first novel, Fezariu's Epiphany, was published in May 2011. When not writing I'm a lover of films, games, books and blogging. I live in Barnsley, with my wife, Donna, and our six cats - Kain, Razz, Buggles, Charlie, Bilbo and Frodo.
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