The movie I’m reviewing is one I’ve been proselytising about for years, it’s my favourite film and I think everyone over the age of 16 or so should see it. It’s brilliant. It’s Oldboy.
I lived with a South Korean guy for a while. His Anglicised name was Jack. Jack was crazy. A big ball of giggly nervous energy. He once tried to pan-fry a tin of baked beans, and they exploded into an inferno of Heinz-flavoured destruction and we had to run away. I didn’t even know beans were flammable. One night, to acclimatise him to England, we got him wasted. It was a bad idea as it turns out, because when he got drunk all he could think about was his mandatory military service and he tried to invade our next door neighbour’s house – and succeeded. He had single-handedly taken a whole house filled with terrified Polish people, and was busily making himself some beans on toast in their kitchen to celebrate when the police arrived. Fortunately this time, no beans exploded.
So when I sat down the first time to watch Oldboy, a South Korean film, I was pretty sure I was in for some pretty unconventional stuff. But what I saw something way, way beyond anything I could have expected and it was the best film-watching experience of my life. Even as I write I have goosebumps thinking about the first time I saw Old Boy, and no film has ever had an effect that powerful on me before.
If you’re familiar with Oldboy and it’s history, then you’ll know that it was based on a manga series and you’ll hate me for this, but I’m not going to talk about that. I had no idea that the series existed until after I saw the film, nor am I very familiar with manga, so it had no influence on my thoughts and I want to review the film in its own right. Sorry manga fan bois, all i’m going to do is give the manga series an honorable mention and move on.
From the first shot of the film until the last it’s difficult to take your eyes off Oldboy. I mean that seriously; the first shot of the film is beautiful. This is the first shot, althought without the movement and the music it doesn’t do it justice at all.
Here’s a quick plot synopsis, minus spoilers. Some dude, Oh-Daesu, is on the way home from a drunken night out and after being bailed out of the pokey by a friend (a very funny scene) when they stop to make a phone call to Oh-Daesu’s daughter, it’s her birthday. When Oh-Daesu passes the phone to his friend, Oh-Daesu vanishes. He wakes up in a shithole hotel room, locked in and fed only dried dumplings through a slit in the bottom of the door, with just a diary and a TV for dubious company. By watching the news, he discovers that his wife has been murdered, that he’s the prime suspect, and that his daughter has been sent to live with a foster family. He knows he’s being set up in a big way. After several failed suicide attempts he starts training himself physically, shadow boxing and punching the outline of a man on his wall, so that he can take revenge on his captor when he eventually escapes via a hole he’s digging with chopsticks.
He’s kept locked in the room with no explanation for 15 years. Then, again without warning or explanation, Oh-Daesu is released on top of a building next to the point from which he vanished. The rest of the film is concerned with his search for answers, and to find the people responsible for his imprisonment. But his main driving force is his daughter, and to be reunited with her.
And that’s it. It’s a good premise for a film, and it sounds very simple but it’s not. The plot is actually very involved including hypnosis, changing time periods, flashbacks, twists, turns, violence and all-out unexpectedness. Excuse me for being a bit pretentious, but the whole style of Oldboy is… ahem… kafkaesque. There seems to be a tangible sense of threat throughout the entire film, and eventually that sense of threat manifests itself into something much darker, and the final confrontation is very unsettling. The entire tone is pretty menacing and it’s easy to see why opinion is divided on Oldboy, but the menace is deliberately undermined by the well-placed use of splashes of humour. I read one critic who said that the film seemed a bit inconsistent to him (or her), and I can see where they’re coming from but I don’t think it’s inconsistent; I think it’s actually very well-rounded and the humour… ahem… juxtaposes the violence very well.
Oldboy is a deeply stylish film, as most films based on Manga are (films like Ichi The Killer come to mind, and Sin City to an extent too) and the film and sound production is magnificent. The whole film sparkles, it’s gorgeous to look at and you’ll never be bored watching this movie. The beauty of the photography makes the dark theme and brutal violence seem even more dark and even more brutal, but again those little flashes of humour help to balance it out. For example, the first night that Oh-Daesu is released, after training and fighting in his room, he picks a fight with a group of young guys. He batters them, and as the scene fades he narrates “Can 15 years of imaginary training be put to use? Apparently it can.” Then after he meets a helpful young lady and is in her flat, he bursts in on her while she’s on the toilet, desperate to have sex with her after such a long spell of abstinence. She hits him on the head with the handle of a knife and he retreats sheepishly. He narrates, “Can 15 years of imaginary training be put to use? Apparently not.” As masturbation jokes go, that one’s pretty good.
Unlike most live-action manga movies however, Oldboy uses really very little CG and I like that. In a world where George Lucas is king and virtually every new film relies heavily on computers to create their aesthetics, Oldboy is refreshingly raw. To see such a stylish film done so naturally is really enjoyable. Sure there are a few special effects and a few composite shots, but generally Oldboy just features brilliant actors interacting. The best example of this is the fight scene.
The Fight Scene
If you’ve seen the film, you know exactly what i’m talking about. I genuinely think it’s a contender for the best fight scene ever committed to film. It’s a single long take, in which Oh-Daesu takes on a corridor full of guys armed only with a hammer. I’ve included it below, watch it.
Have you ever seen a fight scene done like this? It’s exceptional, so entertaining. I read somewhere that it was originally going to be just a normal fight scene, but during the planning stages of the production they decided to film it in one go, and it works brilliantly. There’s a point where the actor who plays Oh-Daesu is pounding a guy and realises that he’s going out of shot, and then turns the guy around so he’s in the right position. That doesn’t detract from the effect though; I love those little moments where you can see the actor thinking. It’s not a realistic film, so I don’t mind the little dip in realism there.
Speaking of realism, I should also mention the other famous scene from Oldboy, the octopus scene. Oh-Daesu wanders into a sushi bar and asks for something alive. He’s served a live octopus, and he eats it whole, with the tentacles still crawling up his face. The actor did this scene fore real, and he did four takes. He’s a devout Buddhist and a lifelong vegetarian, so for every live octopus he ate he had to say a prayer for it beforehand. The director, Park Chan-Wook, was later asked if he felt sorry for Choi Min-Sik, the actor who plays Oh-Daesu, for having to eat four octopuses. Park Chan-Wook simply replied that he felt more sorry of the octopus. Fair do’s.
This review is getting pretty epic so I better cut it short. To summarise, just the fact that this film can actually be made in South Korea shows how far ahead of the curve Asian cinema is – or perhaps more accurately, it shows how behind the curve most Western cinema is. When I opened up my copy of Oldboy to start writing this review, Team America was rolling around inside. Team America’s not a bad film, but these two DVDs should not be in the same case. They shouldn’t even be on the same fucking planet.
My rating? I give it a full ten fried dumplings out of ten. See it.