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Short stories are different from novels in that they condense a powerful story in a few pages and prepare the reader for a fantastic twist at the end to either open up a host of ideas and outcomes, or completely re-contextualize the entire story. This key structure has been used in a number of very successful movies recently such as M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense, or Christopher Nolan's Memento. And of course, who can forget the endings for Fincher's Fight Club or Seven?
Oldboy, a Korean film, is the latest example of a very successful use of this structure, but with a twist in itself: it's not the last 10 minutes that blow your socks off, it's the entire movie. Oldboy is simply an amazing movie that is so well done, so captivating and intriguing that it is impossible not to think about it for days after you see it.
Dae-su Oh is a man in his early 30's who gets kidnapped one day and wakes up in what looks like a cheap motel room, with a bed and a TV, but no windows. Without being given any reason, he is kept there for 15 years. Meals are brought daily, and every few months, his room is gassed, and when he wakes up, he has been shaved and got a haircut. After a few years, his mental health starts to deteriorate seriously, and he attempts suicide. The room is gassed and his wounds are cleaned up. For 15 years, he lives in this small dirty room, completely isolated, without any apparent reason, with no other contact with the world than through the TV. Then, suddenly, one day, on the 15th anniversary of his abduction, his room is gassed again, and he wakes up atop a building, seemingly free. In a suitcase he finds near him, there is a lot of cash, and a cell phone. The phone rings, and on the other side, a sinister voice tells him that he is free now, that he must find out why his life was destroyed, who was behind his abduction, and get his revenge: "Find me", says the voice.
Throughout his investigation, Dae-su Oh confronts an omnipresent and unknown enemy. This movie is a rollercoaster ride of revelations. Dae-su Oh's character is a result of how he handled being abducted for 15 years. He has "super-strength" that he gained from days and days of self-training fighting imaginary adversaries and punching the wall. He has "super-knowledge" from all the information he has absorbed watching television for hours and hours every day. He is "super-driven" by his uncontrolled desire to get revenge. His life has been completely destroyed, and he tries to figure out why and by whom. Even though he seems in control of the situation as he discovers clues to the identity of his enemy, we realize quickly that he is in fact completely manipulated in the cruelest of ways by a nemesis. If Dae-su Oh is driven by revenge, the man behind all this is even more driven by the same desire to take his revenge. But for what reason? Why apply so much perseverance, cunning planning, cruelty, and means, over close to 2 decades, to destroy a man's life? What did Dae-su Oh do to deserve such wrath?
The movie does not leave you hanging. You will understand the extent of the story, and the unbelievable cruelty of the punishment Dae-su Oh has been going through. The themes of the movie are deep, centered on revenge and how it can denature anyone. The main character often asks: "Even if I am no better than a beast, don't I deserve to live too?". What is the measure of a punishment in response to a crime, and can a victim be compensated by the suffering of the criminal through the punishment? But more deeply, the story is about sins in a fundamental religious sense: is a sin a sin even if you don't know you have perpetrated it? Are carelessness or negligence sins? Dae-su Oh did something stupid, that he completely forgot about only a few months after. But his action, insignificant then, had devastating consequences afterwards. Is he really guilty? "Be it a rock or a grain of sand, don't they both sink in water all the same?". And in the end, the 2 protagonists, Dae-su Oh and his nemesis, have become, through the years, much more alike then they would admit: both are driven exclusively by revenge towards each other. One word of advice: the ending might disappoint western audience unfamiliar with Korean culture. If you have seen other Korean movies, you could appreciate how culturally important the characters' reactions and actions are, and how they fit with the Korean, and greater Asian, culture. If you don't know about this, the end might seem silly to you, but that would be a mistake.
Director Chan-Wook Park, who previously did the great Joint Security Area, definitely took a lesson from Fincher. The movie is not only a spine tingler from a story point of view, but it's also incredibly beautiful to look at. There is an obvious care over each shot, how it is framed, its angles, the light, and the sets. This movie is simply a feast for the eye, in very much the same way Fight Club was. For instance, a pivotal scene in the movie has Dae-su Oh fighting his way through a corridor against 20 people or so. The scene is done in one continuous shot, using the wide scope ratio of this movie exquisitely, and has some incredible fight choreography. All of that is done in about 3 minutes, delivering an intense emotional impact. Full of visual effects which accentuate the psychological state of the characters, or intensify the tensions present throughout the story, this movie is simply a masterpiece in how it weaves together its visual tapestry. The soundtrack is also impressive, being used very effectively, creating contrasts, excitement, and suspense easily in the most important scenes. This is movie that should be viewed with the volume up to benefit as much as possible from those musical effects. Watching a scary torture with Vivaldi's Four Seasons playing distinctly is quite something. I was jumping on my seat from excitement over and over again.
The performances are also quite incredible with Min-sik Choi pulling all stops to create a disturbed, driven, and violent character that you nevertheless feel pity for because of what he goes through. He was amazing in Failan, and repeats an incredible performance here. He is simply one of the best actors around today. The villain, portrayed by Ji-tae Yu, seems a little bit forced from time to time, but once in a while, the sheer tranquility and insanity of the performance is shivering.
This is an extraordinary movie that got me completely wired up for 2 hours. The film keeps on packing the punches, even when you think things are about to wrap up, and doesn't let go until after the credits have rolled. Although very different from Fight Club, I felt as excited when watching this movie. Visually, structurally, they are very similar. The movie won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2004 and for good reason. This is one of the best films, Korean or not, that I have seen in a long time.
- Laurent Hasson