Oldboy (Chan-wook Park 2003)

30 05 2006

If you don’t know how great the Prince Charles cinema is yet, you really should go and find out. Only a hundred yards from the rain-streaked mascara and laddered tights of the overpriced tart that is Leicester Square, this wonder of a London landmark is quietly peddling the best films at amazing prices. For five of Her Majesty’s English pounds, not enough for a few crunchy sweets rattling around a polypropylene bag full of air in the looming, gaudy mutleyplexes so close by, last night you got a magazine, a free beer, and a film. That film was Oldboy. I love the Prince Charles.

Oldboy, meanwhile, is thoroughgoing bonkers. You may have heard the story, of a hapless husband and father imprisoned in mysterious circumstances for fifteen years, only to be released and presented with money, smart clothes, and a trail of clues to work out who his mysterious tormentor was.

You may even have heard of the shocking moments, such as the eating of a live octopus, a spot of interrogatory dentistry, or the final penance of a man who talks too much, involving a pair of ornamental scissors.

But no matter what you’ve heard, this amazing South Korean film manages to be completely unexpected. The first surprise is how funny it is – albeit generally very blackly – with our protagonist Oh Dae-Su (Min-sik Choi) shifting between dead-eyed violence and deadpan pratfall.

It’s also very stylish, but unobtrusively so. There’s a seamless drift into half-remembered hallucination when a subway train slides into an apartment, or the pregnant pause as Oh Dae-Su wields a claw hammer over a henchman’s head and a dotted line arrows down to the intended point of impact.

Possibly the highlight of the film is an extended long-take punch-up between Oh Dae-Su and countless goons in a cramped corridor that’s better value than the last two Matrixes and both Kill Bills combined. This culminates in a great joke that sums up Oh Dae-Su’s obession in his quest, and Oldboy the film’s heady mix of violence and humour.

This sequence is one of many that takes place in a confined space, lending the whole film a claustrophobic, stuffy air. As Oh Dae-Su’s nemesis taunts, the search for revenge has simply placed our befuddled antihero in “a bigger prison.”

Cleverly, the film is ambiguous about who is seeking revenge on who, and suggests that seeking revenge is never going to work out well for anyone, in possibly the most ambivalent ending you’ll ever see.

This thoughtful approach stands in stark contrast to western revenge films, which can often reward or redeem their antiheroes through the fulfilment of revenge fantasies. A stark contrast could be drawn with Payback (Brian Helgeland 1999), starring Mel Gibson as another sharp-suited, dead-eyed, casually-violent vengeance seeker. It’s almost impossible to imagine Gibson, or Clint Eastwood, or even a post-16 Blocks Bruce Willis, going through the range of emotion and debasement displayed by Min-sik Choi here.

The story is a bit knotted, and got a bit lost, as most films do, when internet searches got involved. It does go on a bit too. But these are minor quibbles in such a glorious, exuberant, funny, thought-provoking piece of filmmaking. Oldboy should be firmly added to the list of films exempt from remaking – instead enjoy the original and best in places like the Prince Charles. Ignore the flashy, empty promise of the multiplex peepshow and get your revenge served hot.

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