#92: Oldboy [2003]

When discussing Oldboy, my pre-viewing consultations with film-savvy friends mainly consisted of concern for the preservation of my innocence. This bloodthirsty Korean thriller narrates the story of a man who is held captive for 15 years with no explanation and is then released just as mysteriously. The freed Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik) has been framed for the murder of his wife and is surrounded by unseen enemies as he seeks for the truth and revenge on his unknown enemy.
Undoubtedly, Oldboy exhibits its fair share of violent and sexual content, but it’s far from gratuitous. Firstly, and significantly, the disturbing subject matter of Oldboy is skilfully filmed. Take for example the famous corridor fight scene in which a hammer-wielding Dae-Su faces over a dozen enemies in one continuous shot which lasts for three minutes. The focus in this scene is not the graphic violence, but rather the poignant desperation and fear of the combatants themselves, as they fight, fall and subsequently writhe in agony. The realism is more brutal than the physical aggression, a sophistication which over-editing would have obliterated.
This leads into my ‘secondly’, for which I must borrow from critic Roger Ebert and argue that this ‘is a powerful film not because of what it depicts, but because of the depths of the human heart which it strips bare.’1 Oldboy would lose much more than a “thrill-factor” if director Park Chan-wook were to soften the film’s blows on the viewer’s senses. Dae-su is made to suffer extreme tortures of the mind and body in order to explore human nature itself; we see his true character exposed in his agonies. The success of this relies heavily on Choi Min-sik’s superlative proficiency in what is an exceptionally taxing role. His moving depiction of a man who has battled schizophrenia whilst incarcerated, and even in his ‘freedom’ experienced overwhelming physical, mental and emotional torture at the hands of his persecutor is extraordinary.
It is for this reason that Ebert is mistaken when he claims that Oldboy ‘watches [Dae-su] objectively, asking no sympathy, standing outside his plight’. How can we be objective when offered such a moving performance from Choi? How can we stand outside Dae-su’s plight when the film pulls us in so powerfully? This is such an emotionally demanding movie to watch that we simply wouldn’t put the effort in if we felt no sympathy. It is precisely because we sympathise with Dae-su that Oldboy is effective, both cinematically and thematically. Certainly, we do not condone Dae-su’s horrific methods for uncovering the truth, but we cannot help but cry for justice alongside him.
Truth be told, I was surprised that I enjoyed and respected this film so much. While it’s brutal, Oldboy is not simply sadistic. In actual fact Park Chan-wook has created something rather elegant with what can only be described as gruesome subject matter, attesting to the Korean film industry’s well-earned high rankings in World Cinema.

1 [http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20050324/REVIEWS/50310001].

My Challenge Assistants for this installment were Chris, Kevin and Jack (the latter earning my eternal gratitude for offering his projector).
Chris: 'Laugh and the whole world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone.' [It's a recurring quotation from the film].
Kevin expressed enjoyment of the violence in general, and I think Jack was sleeping for most of the film.