Monday, November 23, 2015

Oldboy (2003)


Starring: Min-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hye-jeong Kang

Rated R for Strong Violence including Scenes of Torture, Sexuality and Pervasive Language

In the 12 years since its release, Chan-wook Park's thriller "Oldboy" has gained a sizable following for a foreign film, enough to earn its director the job for making an American film ("Stoker") and, of course, a remake.  It certainly has the makings of a cult film: an offbeat tone, a twisted plot, and some weirdness worthy of David Lynch.

After seeing the film, it's hard to understand why it created such a buzz.  It's not as violent as its reputation suggests (although there were a few scenes that made me wince), and the tone isn't as warped as it should be to make it a real winner.  Most importantly, the screenplay is too messy for it to succeed on its own right.

Oh Dae-su (Choi) is a drunken lout who has been hauled off to jail on the night of his daughter's fourth birthday.  Bounced by his friend, he's on his way home when he is kidnapped and held in a cell for 15 years.  Suddenly, he's released.  With the help of a pretty sushi chef named Mi-do (Kang), he's on a mission to find out who kidnapped him and why, but also why they let him out.

"Oldboy" is not for everyone.  That much I'm sure.  It's definitely R-rated, and will offend animal lovers (not since "A Fish Called Wanda" has an ocean-dwelling creature suffered so much indignity) and conservative-minded film-goers.  The ending in particular packs a punch.  It features a twist that I didn't see coming (not exactly hard), but it would have been on par with "Seven" or "The Usual Suspects" had the screenplay been stronger and the direction less distancing.

The acting is strong.  There are really three principal characters, and all do solid jobs.  It's not arresting work, but they're effective.  Special mention has to go to Hye-jeong Kang, who has that rare screen appeal that only comes along every once in a while.  She's not the greatest actress, if one can judger her talents solely on this movie, but all she has to do is flash a smile and we melt.

One of my criticisms of Chan-wook Park's work in "Stoker" was that he showed off too much.  With "Oldboy," he doesn't show off enough.  The film has a warped, sort of groovy sense of atmosphere, but it's not strong enough.  The budget may have had something to do with it ("Oldboy" cost $3 million while "Stoker" cost $12 million), but money doesn't really matter when it comes to filmmaking.  An innovative vision can turn a film made on the cheap to a mega-blockbuster.

Ironically, I was thinking that a remake could have helped the film.  I meant to watch this movie a few years ago so I could see Spike Lee's version, but I guess I never got around to it.

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