A modern day neo-noir that became a cultural icon not just in South Korea, but around the globe, Oldboy is a spellbinding tale, perhaps the pre-eminent example, of revenge. Second up in my South Korea-a-thon, I decided to do Oldboy next because of its concise title. Needless to say, after it was over, I was a little worried that I hadn’t saved the best for last (though, with one more film to go, that may still be the case, but I doubt highly that it can top what Oldboy has achieved).
When we start, protagonist Oh Dae-su is just a drunken man, slovenly in his vices, and just as pathetic. Then, with no explanation, he is kidnapped and imprisoned, and, over the next fifteen years, grows himself into a man tailor-made for vengeance. In 99 out of 100 films, this would never have been in the realm of believable, based on who Dae-su was before the kidnapping, but Oldboy makes it completely work. On the fifteenth year, he is just as suddenly and inexplicably released, whereupon he puts his new skills and mindset to the test in tracking down who took away his life, and why. Great premise, made all the better by an absolutely stellar execution. The lead actor who plays Dae-su went completely Christian Bale for this role, losing and gaining weight where appropriate for the character, physical training, and doing all his own fight scenes and stunts. Excellent work. The villain, who I won’t spoil here, is also deliciously evil; he ends up smiling and smirking a lot, which just adds to the “malicious douchebag” factor. And for the fight scenes, while they are rare and far between in the film (if someone has told you otherwise, they’re wrong), the quality and realism displayed by them more than makes up for the lack of quantity; you’ve never seen fight scenes so brutally realistic, and the one centerpiece of the film is an extended, corridor-long fight scene between Dae-su and a gang of thugs with wooden sticks and knives, all filmed in a single take down the entire hallway as Dae-su kicks the crap out of each man, one by one. It’s amazing to watch, and it’ll stick in your memory happily.
Naturally, a film this hyped up will set some unreasonably high expectations for someone, like me, who hadn’t seen the film. Well, there ended up being a plus and a minus to this: Oldboy met my expectations, but it didn’t surpass them. It was very, very good, and it told a tale that was worthy of the running time it took to tell it (though mild disclaimer, there are some story elements, particularly the plot twists at the end, that may make some uncomfortable about a few scenes in hindsight). But with all that, I was surprised to find myself not just wanting more, but feeling like I hadn’t gotten enough. I spent some time on this, and my best guess as to what I can attribute this to is the style of the film, which rushes headlong for a few brief, adrenaline-charged moments, then slows down considerably to give the characters some breathing room. It doesn’t make for a bad film, nor even an unwatchable one, because Oldboy is extremely entertaining. It just means that at the end, all the adrenaline you’ve built up from the brief moments it had escalated has nowhere to go, no expenditure or release mechanism, and that can quite possibly leave you stymied. Take it with a grain of salt; this is worth your time, but just be aware that your time may not be as valuable as you think it is.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10