Korean cinema got a major boost in 2004 when Park Chan-wook was awarded the Best Director's prize at Cannes for his revenge tale "Oldboy (Oldeuboi)", which purportedly lost the Best Film prize to Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" by only one vote (despite enthusiastic support from jury president Quentin Tarantino). Generating some much needed buzz in the international community, the press coverage of Korean films in general noticeably increased in the weeks and months following the Cannes win, and once again, it was almost as though it were late 2001/early 2002 again (when Hollywood first took notice of Korean cinema). And though Park does not achieve the level of filmmaking excellence as with his previous effort "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Boksuneun naeui geos)", "Oldboy" still remains a solid effort, and will likely be remembered for further cultivating interest in Korean filmmaking around the world.
"Oldboy" opens with womanizing Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-shik) being released by the police for drunk and disorderly behavior, only to be abducted off the street by persons unknown. When Dae-su wakes up, he finds himself in a locked hotel room, with the only human contact being a faceless person who delivers his meals. His only window to the outside world is the television in his room, and from it, Dae-su learns that his wife has been murdered and he is the prime suspect. Days become weeks, weeks become months, and months turn into years as Dae-su remains imprisoned, with the television bringing images of a changing world, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall or the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup of Soccer.
Then, inexplicably, Dae-su is released after spending 15 years locked away. However, he quickly learns that his ordeal is far from over, as he is handed some money and a cell phone by a homeless man, triggering the next stage of the twisted game that is being directed by Dae-su's still-unknown tormentor. Dae-su ends up in a sushi bar where he inexplicably collapses after befriending a waitress named Mido (Kang Hea-jung). Dae-su then wakes up in the modest apartment belong to Mido, who has taken sympathy on him. With Mido's help, Dae-su pieces together clues that eventually lead him back to the person responsible for his imprisonment, a slick businessman named Lee Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae). And in finding the answers to two burning questions (why was he imprisoned in the first place, and why was he released 15 years later), Dae-su uncovers more than a few shocking revelations.
It is true that "Oldboy" was not the first Korean film to win a major award at Cannes (indeed, Im Kwon-taek's "Chihwaseon" tied P.T. Anderson's "Punch-Drunk Love" for Best Director in 2002). However, what makes "Oldboy" such an important achievement is that it will likely galvanize mainstream acceptance of Korean directors and their films. "Chihwaseon" was certainly a well-made film from one of South Korea's most accomplished directors, but its subject matter limited its exposure to mostly arthouse crowds. "Oldboy", on the other hand, is a genre piece that stands a better chance of gaining access to the mainstream moviegoer. After all, it was genre filmmaking that paved the way for mainstream acceptance of Hong Kong cinema (such as martial arts and bullet-laden actioners) and the recent interest in Japanese horror.
Based on a Japanese manga by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi, "Oldboy" is the second part of Park's 'Revenge Trilogy' that started with his critically acclaimed "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance". Like its predecessor, "Oldboy" is filled with violent and disturbing imagery, which the foreign media had little hesitation in pointing out during Cannes 2004 (even referring to Korean films as the 'cinema of cruelty'). Fortunately, for what may be the film that opens the door to more international interest in South Korean filmmaking, "Oldboy" is a strong effort with only a few shortcomings. Most of the narrative momentum of "Oldboy" comes from Dae-su's quest to identify his tormentor, using the most mundane of clues, such as tracking down the restaurant that made the fried dumplings he dined on while imprisoned. The investigation also serves as a catalyst for the budding relationship between Dae-su and Mido, which winds up being more than just an excuse to inject some throwaway sex into the mix.
Unfortunately, as Dae-su's investigation deepens, the story begins to strain credibility, particularly in how Woo-jin is able to always stay ahead of Dae-su and orchestrate such an ambitious and convoluted plan. It also does not help that the film's villain is thinly written, draining the inevitable confrontation between Dae-su and Woo-jin of much-needed emotion. Nevertheless, there is still a meaty payoff in the film's sucker-punch ending, which puts the so-called 'twist endings' of M. Night Shyamalan's more recent efforts (e.g., "Signs", "The Village") to shame. The film's 'big reveal' also treads into taboo territory that will certainly be a challenge for the planned Universal Pictures remake.
Judging by the filmmaking smarts on display in "Oldboy", Park's Best Director's prize at Cannes is well-deserved. Evidence of Park's mastery over editing and cinematic sleight-of-hand is also abundant, such as how he conveys the passage of time during Dae-su's imprisonment using a montage of television clips, or the film's highlight action sequence in which Park pulls a 'Scorcese' with an elaborate three-minute tracking fight sequence composed like an old-school side-scrolling beat'em-up videogame. Those familiar with the dingy settings of "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" will recognize the dull and soiled cinematography at work in "Oldboy", which perfectly captures the tone of Dae-su's drab existence.
The casting of Choi as Dae-su is perfect. With the weathered looks and emotional volatility that earned him acclaim in films such as "Shiri (Swiri)" and "Failan (Pairan)", it is difficult to think of anyone other than Choi playing the tormented Dae-su. Having appeared previously in Im Kwon-taek's Cannes winner "Chihwaseon", "Oldboy" should further cement Choi's place in the pantheon of international cinema. Kang ("Nabi"), who bears more than a passing resemblance to Hong Kong actress Karen Mok ("Shaolin Soccer"), has good chemistry with Choi as the bubbly and warm Mido, providing excellent contrast to the melancholy madness of Dae-su. Appropriately enough, both Choi and Kang earned acting accolades in South Korea's Blue Dragon Film Awards for their memorable turns. Unfortunately, as Dae-su's nemesis, Yoo ("Natural City") is an odd casting decision. While he certainly exudes the cold and calculated malevolence of a man with nothing but revenge on his mind, Yoo seems a little on the young side considering that both Woo-jin and Dae-su are supposed to be around the same age.
Despite its sometimes disquieting combination of sex and violence, "Oldboy" scared up enough admissions during its domestic release to become the fifth highest-grossing homegrown production in 2003, just behind "Untold Scandal (Joseon namnyeo sangyeol ji sa)". Such commercial success has been well earned, as "Oldboy" is a gripping revenge thriller that could easily be counted among the best Korean films of 2003. The film's script may not be as strong as his previous efforts, but Park's mastery of the visual medium more than makes up for such narrative shortcomings, and this certainly bodes well for the final installment of his revenge trilogy, "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance", which is slated to unspool in 2005.
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