Director: Park Chan-wook
Screenplay: Hwang Jo-yoon, Im Joon-hyeong, Park Chan-wook
Starring: Choi Min-sik, Yoo Ji-tae, Kang Hye-jung
Runtime: 120 Minutes
Original UK Release: 2003
Park Chan-wook is one of South Korea’s finest auteur filmmakers. In style and ambience, his closest comparison in western cinema could be David Fincher, as he is someone who relishes the nature of darkness, moral ambiguity, contemporary visceral horrors and the bleak explicitness of the exposed human soul.
But through his direction and voice his films concern social dynamics and extremes of Asian cinema that are incredibly difficult to categorise – and Oldboy, the second instalment of The Vengeance Trilogy, is his dark tour de force.
Oldboy is a real neo-noir with a nasty, grizzly distortion through a semblance of horror cinema. Sadism and suffering with the intent of martyrdom, the lead, Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), endures the multitude of extremes that the film offers over its gruelling runtime. From the eating of live creatures to stylised, dauntingly yet necessary violence, it puts Dae-su through an emotional wringer and the audience are with him every trudging step of the way.
It’s unique in that it’s so culturally specific to South Korea, from Dae-su’s identification of Dumplings from local vendors in order to track down his former captors, to its highly restrictive stance on gun laws leading to an incredible one take fight sequence in a hallway involving a claw-hammer and other sharp and blunt objects – which incidentally is incredibly choreographed and shot.
It’s also rich with theme, channelling Greek tragedy of Oedipus Rex in both its narrative and in some of its striking character poses that feel like dominant signifiers of presence and intention, as we see this tale of omnipresent gods and mortal and depraved men take form in a corporeal industrial landscape.
The film burrows into the rabbit hole that is its third act with hesitation and foreboding, and the horrifying nature of its final reveal is one of the single most memorable and devastating climaxes in recent cinematic history, with Choi Min-sik selling every beaten breath and cry out of his overwhelming performance.
Yoo Ji-tae portrays an indistinctly tragic villain with a brilliant, emotionally buckling performance, and Min-sik’s chemistry with Kang Hye-jung as Mi-do, the young sushi chef who accompanies him, is amongst the film's highlights.
Oldboy is kind of perfect at exactly what it wants to be, and even if not for everyone, it’s undeniably one of the very best films of the 21st century.