Directed by: PARK CHAN-WOOK
2003, TSPDT Rank #542
Park Chan-wook's Oldboy is one of the defining films of contemporary Korean cinema - a brooding, Hitchcockian psychological thriller with disturbing sexual undertones and a pervasive sense of unease which begins in the opening minutes of the film and lingers long after the ending credits have finished. It follows a hard-drinking middle-aged businessman named Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), who finds himself imprisoned in a hotel-like room for fifteen years, a long period of time which is compressed into a whirlwind prologue sequence - with the man's release seeming to come almost as abruptly as his imprisonment did. As such, we get to know him mainly as man bent on getting revenge, but not before he discovers who imprisoned him and why.
While this might sound like a fairly standard setup for a revenge film, Park takes the premise to unexpected territory in terms of violence and brutality while also probing deeper into the psychological implications of the characters' actions than most revenge films would venture. For while Dae-su's imprisonment is a disturbing concept, Park continually encourages us to question the impact of this experience on his psyche and the motivations of his mysterious captor. Dae-su's sense of reality is never entirely stable; it always seems that he is being set up or toyed with is some way, but it is not clear until very late in the game by who or why. And once these details finally are revealed, it is not comforting to either him or the audience in any respect.
Furthermore, as the harrowing story unfolds and comes into focus, the cruelty to which the characters subject each other becomes as disturbing as the reasons behind their actions. Park ultimately leaves the viewer without much hope for the film's characters, or even assurances of the extent to which their experiences were real. As with many contemporary Korean thrillers and horror films, the lingering effects of memories and personal grievances loom heavily throughout Oldboy. It's an unpleasant and somber film, but Park's use of impressively-choreographed action, together with a complex and visceral plotline, makes it one that is not easily forgotten.