Twitter Plot Summary: A man seeks revenge on the one who imprisoned him for 15 years. He has 5 days to find out why. Twists abound.
What most people focus on when discussing Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy is the scene where Min-sik Choi, playing the recently released Dae-su Oh, eats a live squid in a restaurant. It’s particularly shocking from a Western perspective but not too out of the ordinary for the culture in which it is based. In the grand scheme of things this one scene, whilst a little grotesque and likely to upset a few stomachs along the way, it’s not the most noteworthy aspect of the film, not by a long shot.
Dae-su is a drunken man who wakes one day to find himself imprisoned in what has been made to look like a shabby motel room. 15 years pass, during which time he watches a lot of television and makes several attempts to take his own life before switching things around, shadow boxing the wall and starting to tunnel his way out to freedom. Then without warning he is released and set a challenge of locating the man who imprisoned him. This does not prove too difficult as the man in question wants to be found. What follows is essentially a cat and mouse thriller, where it’s never clear as to who is the cat and who is the mouse.
Strong depictions of violence are the norm in Korean cinema, and Oldboy is no different. Where Oldboy contrasts when compared with the likes of excessively violent films such as Ichi The Killer or even The Human Centipede is that it has a strong emotional story at its core. There’s much more going on here than people simply dishing out horrific levels of violence against others – each violent act in Oldboy has a purpose, a point to be made, a reason for being included.
Whether it be a well choreographed corridor fight where Dae-su fights alone against 10 or more thugs (despite having a knife in his back), or when he rushes to the rescue of Mi-do (Kang Hye-Jung) a young woman who finds herself being assaulted by a group of ne’er-do-wells thanks to her choosing to support Dae-su, there is always a purpose for events, no matter how many shades of light and dark that exist between them.
With that said, the tone varies quite considerably from scene to scene. There are moments that are clearly intended to be black comedy in order to diffuse the out and out unpleasantness that dominates much of the narrative. It’s not much in the way of levity by all accounts, but if you’re attuned to some darker humour then Oldboy has you covered.
The finale remains a cinematic gut punch, providing a twist that is hard to foresee and yet makes perfect sense when you consider the rest of the film. Spoilers will not be provided of course, but this, along with a final scene which allows you to make your own mind up as to the ultimate resolution of the story, is a powerful finale to a simply fantastic movie.