Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the first film in Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy, left me wanting more. It was definitely a good movie, but I can’t say that it was a great movie. In 2003, however, audiences were treated to and shocked by Oldboy. Every film student in the world has heard of this movie and I can almost guarantee that any film fanatic has seen this at least once. The first time I saw this movie, I really enjoyed it, but felt like I was missing a lot of the hype. After this second viewing, I understand completely. Oldboy is more than just a thriller. It’s also a mystery, dark comedy, and action film with strong roots in Shakespearean and Grecian tragedies.
Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is an average Seoul businessman with a wife and daughter, who has believed to have lived a normal life. One night, Oh Dae-su is kidnapped and placed in a room for fifteen years. While in the room, Oh Dae-su changes and becomes psychologically twisted and thirsty for revenge. When he is let out after fifteen years, Oh Dae-su starts his quest for revenge and meets Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung), a chef who is willing to help him out, despite her not even knowing anything about him. As the kidnapper is revealed as millionaire Woo-jin Lee (Yoo Ji-tae), the mystery becomes even more intriguing. Instead of who locked Oh Dae-su in a room, he has to figure out why, and the answers may push him to the edge of his sanity.
If you were to take all of the good things from Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, like the excellent blocking, cinematography, and story, and then take away how awful the plotting of that movie is, you still wouldn’t have Oldboy. In order to describe how great Oldboy is you would have to add in a mixture of excellent suspense combined with spot on pacing, and only then would you see how excellent Oldboy is. This is one of those essential pieces of film that everyone should see if they are interested in film. It’s more than just a bloody thriller. It’s a look into the darkest parts of human psychology where revenge and murder are just part of a person’s life.
This has a very similar artistic style to Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. In terms of set design, this is a dirty looking movie, but once again Park Chan-wook has shown how he has a talent for creating beauty amongst the grime. His lensing in this movie is fantastic, but his interesting use of the camera doesn’t stop there. One scene in particular that stands out is a huge fight scene shot from the side of a corridor that was filmed in one continuous take. It isn’t rare for editors to hide cuts into takes as long as these, but this shot was 100% done in one take. Every shot is composed wonderfully, which once again shows that Park has one of the best eyes in the international film industry.
As great as Oldboy looks, it wouldn’t have worked without Choi Min-sik’s excellent performance. Oh Dae-su is a very complicated character with a lot of ups and downs, and Choi plays it with spot on perfection. There are scenes where he is smiling, but we sense all of the inner pain that is boiling beneath the surface, and other times where his acting shows all of the anger and hate. The climax of the movie, which really shows comparisons between Shakespearean and Grecian tragedies, really highlights Choi’s abilities and is one of the best onscreen performances I have ever seen.
Oldboy is one of the best films ever made, and deserves to be on the same lists as classic films. In its own right, it is a contemporary classic that will go down in film history. It’s a poetic story of violence, love, and revenge that shows a side of humanity that people don’t normally like to see. Choi Min-sik gives an excellent performance, and Park Chan-wook shows his talent as a film maker and story teller. If you haven’t seen this Oldboy, it is your responsibility to see it as quickly as possible.