Review: Oldboy (Park, 2003)

Still from the movie Old Boy

From what I’d heard of the movie, I had expected a bloodbath a la Quentin Tarantino. This film is far less bloody and far more disturbing than anticipated (though not quite as gratuitously twisted as some Japanese films I’ve seen or heard about–unsurprisingly, it’s loosely based off a Japanese manga of the same name). In fact, the movie’s genius lies in the way it defies expected tropes. The hero is not quite the typical vengeance movie hero–certainly not as invulnerable, definitely not as dignified.

Actually, I advise you to stop reading this review right here if you haven’t seen the movie yet. Oldboy is best discovered with no preconceptions, as long as you’re willing to stomach a few grotesque scenes. Because I came in with somewhat elevated expectations, the film did let me down on a few points. The moments where too much is explained out loud, by both villain and hero (but really, in this movie, who is villain, who is hero, who is victim, or is everyone a victim?), in a way that reminded me of dumbed-down action movies. The thin and somewhat contrived motives and back story. That one unnecessarily long corridor fight scene.

Choi Min-sik, who plays the protagonist Oh Dae-su, is excellent. I doubt you will find another vengeance hero as creepy and forlorn and mad as him. That smile… The others are stock characters–enjoyable, but unexceptional.

Well, the way I’ve written this review, you would think I didn’t like the film. I actually did. If you watch it, it will sear itself into your brain, it is that utterly memorable. Though it doesn’t quite transcend or transform its genre, it does at least scratch at the door. I do prefer Park’s Stoker, though–perhaps because it’s more personal. And quieter.

I’m curious to see the Spike Lee version, despite the rather dismal critical reception for his adaptation.