In the spirit of broadening my film perspective this month I watched Oldboy, a lauded 2003 South Korean thriller based on a successful Japanese comic book. What I encountered was a highly engrossing blend of mystery and action guaranteed to disturb anyone with squeamish tendencies. Needless to say, I loved it. The cinematography and well choreographed fight scenes make this film a standout and neo-noir mystery plot makes it particularly engrossing.
The movie’s protagonist is Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik), a South Korean businessman who is kidnapped and locked in a hotel room for 15 years. However, before he can execute his escape, he is released for seemingly no reason. Through a series of clues and orchestrated encounters he embarks on a quest to learn why he was imprisoned. His journey to the center of the mystery is marked by gritty violence, betrayal, and dark secrets that have remained hidden for decades.
Within the first 15 minutes of this movie it becomes clear why it is such a cult classic. The neo-noir mystery combined with brilliant cinematography and well-choreographed fight scenes leave the viewer riveted. Brilliant POV, close-up and tracking shots create unique, unbroken scenes that help to absorb the viewer and well constructed color compositions underscore the moods of the characters. Unique symmetry and well-balanced shots utilize subjects in the fore-, middle- and background to create visually pleasing depth-of-field. The end result is a highly personal visual construction that highlights the claustrophobic imprisonment and unstable mental state of Oh Dae-Su.
The fight scenes are remarkable in that they portray a gritty, brutal style of violence. One fight scene in particular is accomplished through a single lengthy take and involves intense hand-to-hand combat. Unlike action movies with clean fight sequences and one-punch knockouts, Oh Dae-Su fights with no formal training and seems driven by pure will in the pursuit of revenge. Unlike most action heroes, he is vulnerable to pain or injury and while he usually is triumphant, he rarely escapes unscathed. Even the weapons used in the film highlight the gritty up-close violence, with characters using hammers, crowbars and broken compact discs. The raw violence of Oldboy has a Tarantino-esque tint that magnifies suspense. Perhaps that is why Tarantino praised the movie at the 2004 Cannes film festival when Oldboy won the Grand Prix.
The dialogue is similarly well crafted, although without understanding Korean I imagine some of the nuance is lost in translation. While I don’t mind reading subtitles, perhaps other viewers may prefer a dubbed version.
The mystery is equally riveting, as the audience feels just as lost as Oh Dae-Su on his quest to understand his imprisonment. As the story unwinds and the secrets begin to fall into place the audience witnesses the physical and emotional anguish played out on screen. The emotional connection with Dae-Su makes his triumph and anguish cut deeper than anything one experiences in a traditional blockbuster thriller.
This story of revenge, mystery and love leaves a longer lasting imprint on the viewer than is to be expected from the average film. That being said, those who cringe and squirm when presented with graphic violence might want to steer clear of this cult classic.