Chan-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 with Hollywood’s remake failing to achieve anywhere near the same acclaim.
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 genius of Oldboy is how our loyalty is tested. Many will be with Dae-su Oh, who we have followed throughout the film hoping for his success, but by the end the audience will undoubtedly be divided thanks to the many revelations. Some 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 the ending that challenges our empathy for Dae-su Oh is the key to making this a masterpiece of world cinema.
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