Director: Chan-wook Park
Starring: Min-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hye-jeong Kang
Rated R for strong violence including scenes of torture, sexuality and pervasive language
Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy nearly took the Palm d’Or at Cannes in 2004, but settled for the Grand Jury Prize instead. Not bad for a bloodthirsty revenge flick that makes Quentin Tarantino’s work look genteel by comparison. In this breakout hit from South Korea, tongues are cut out with scissors, teeth are ripped out with hammers, and live animals are eaten as they squirm. There is, however, a beating heart beneath all this violence, and a bravura performance by Min-sik Choi that will keep you riveted to the screen. It is not just a tale of vengeance, but a reflection on sin and its consequences.
I’ll keep the summary spoiler-free. The story opens with a shabby-looking businessman cooling his heels in the slammer after a night of rowdy drunkenness. This is Dae-su, and his run-in with the police has caused him to miss his daughter’s birthday. He bought her a birthday present, a pair of strap-on angel wings, and he just wants to sober-up and get home. An old high-school buddy bails Dae-su out of jail, but on his way home he is inexplicably kidnapped, and his life is changed forever.
Dae-su finds himself imprisoned in a filthy hotel room. He does not know who his captors are. Meals are pushed through a slot in the door, and his only window to the outside world is the television. From the evening news he learns that his wife has been murdered. His hair and blood were found at the scene, and he is now a wanted man.
Time passes. He beats the walls, screams at the door, and begs his unseen keepers to tell him why he is being held, but the answers do not come. Spiralling into madness, he begins a journal and writes down every wrong thing he has done in his life, desperately trying to imagine who his captors might be. After reviewing his lifetime of sins, he concludes that “there are too many wrong deeds.”
Then one day, Dae-su is unexpectedly set free. He awakes on a rooftop with a suit of clothes, a wallet full of cash, and a cell phone. With his former life utterly lost, his only agenda is revenge, but his tormenter has something else in mind — horrors that Dae-su has not yet begun to imagine. What ensues is a violent cat-and-mouse game; Dae-su works madly to unravel the mystery of his imprisonment while his enemy remains one step ahead, toying with him physically, emotionally and mentally.
Dae-su meets a compassionate young woman who takes pity on him. After learning his story, she attaches herself to his cause, selflessly giving of herself despite his madness and instability. She is a light of grace in his darkness, and like so many redeemers, she quickly learns that to love is to invite pain and suffering.
I won’t reveal any more of the plot, except to say that as the puzzle pieces come together, the answers are not easy to face, not for Dae-su or the audience. Despite it’s tightly-plotted action, the film manages to become a sort of epic tragedy. The characters — both heroes and villains — are pawns in the hands of a cruel fate.
Min-sik Choi delivers a tricky performance. As Dae-su, he is equal parts action-hero and tragic everyman. With dark, sad eyes and the weight of the world on his shoulders, he is both diabolical and innocent. He walks the gruesome path that is set before him because he cannot do otherwise. He is tortured by the question that is common to us all: why have I suffered? His pursuit of the answer leads to the most obvious yet most unexpected place.
This movie ain’t for the squeamish. While not always believable, it is directed with confidence and flair, and it delivers the yucky. If blood and torture are not your thing, keep on walking. But if you can stomach the violence, you will be treated to something more complex and intriguing than you might expect.