4 stars (out of 4)
Chanwook Park's "Oldboy" is a high-voltage Korean saga about an elaborate cat-and-mouse game between a sadistic criminal of seemingly limitless resources and his dangerous prey: a businessman whose life has been brutally stolen from him. Set in modern Seoul, in a noir wilderness full of rain-slick streets, neon restaurants, corrupt gangsters and byzantine hotels, it's a movie of such jaw-dropping violence, wild improbability and dazzling style it overpowers all resistance.
"Oldboy" won the Grand Jury prize at the last Cannes Film Festivalthe runner-up trophy to 2004 Palme d'Or winner "Fahrenheit 9/11"and it was widely considered the special favorite of jury president Quentin Tarantino. Certainly it blends and bends, explosively, two genres that Tarantino loves and constantly emulates: classic film noir with a '70s twist and high-style modern Asian action movies. It's as if John Woo's ultra-violent Hong Kong gangster thrillers "Killer" and "Bullet in the Head" were thrown in with Bruce Lee, "Point Blank," '70s Clint Eastwood, Imamura's "Vengeance is Mine," and the Japanese Yakuza thrillers of Ken Ogata and Kinji Fukasuku, then tossed into some huge cinematic pressure cooker and lit ablaze. The movie may strain credulity and tax any sense of realism, but it doesn't contain a dull millisecond.
"Oldboy" begins on some wild, modern night, when a drunken and obstreperous businessman named Oh Dae-su goes on a bender, alienates both the police and his best friend and ends up the morning after in a sealed hotel room, where, with no explanation, he's kept prisoner for the next 15 years. As Oh puzzles over his bizarre fate in this oddly comfortable prison, his wife is murdered (a crime for which Oh is framed), his little daughter disappears, his old life evaporates and the outside world, which he sees on TV, keeps changing.
With little else to do, Oh toughens himself. Like the imprisoned Edmond Dantes in "The Count of Monte Cristo," he starts chipping his way out with eating utensils and endlessly practices martial arts, waiting for the moment he can break free and find his tormentors. When he does, much of "Oldboy" is devoted to nearly nonstop carnage and mayheminterspersed with detective work and sex.
Oh is played by Choi Min-sik, the great Korean actor best known here for playing the drunken 19th Century master-painter Ohwon in Im Kwon-Taek's vibrant period masterpiece "Chihwaseon." Choi is an actor of almost Bogartean weariness and presence, a shaggy tough guy perfect for the role of this rumpled, sad-eyed killer. Freed from his Kafkaesque incarceration, Oh becomes a melancholy slaughter machine, taking and dealing out a staggering amount of punishment with little change of expression or softening of mood.
Park balances lurid violence with deadpan humor, throbbing romance and even some urban poetry, an odd mixture that makes the movie come alive. Just after Oh escapes, he makes it to a sunny high-rise rooftop above his longtime prison, where a deranged young man is about to leap to his death. Brutally interrupting this suicide, Oh demands that the would-be victim listen to his tale of persecution and woe; then, when the disturbed young man tries to tell his own story, Oh callously walks away. When he reaches the street seconds later, we see his recent listener crash to a car roof, which draws Oh's notice but little reaction.
Director-cowriter Park treats this moment as a joke, and it worksjust as dark humor also permeates a later battle with dozens of armed thugs waged by Oh with, most of the time, a knife sticking from his back. Like the bloody comedy of Lee Marvin and John Boorman in "Point Blank," "Oldboy" is scary and funny. But, remarkably, it's also full of sensuality, romance, sex and tendernessemanating from Oh's affair with waitress Mido (played by lovely, lily-like Gang Hye-jung). He meets her in a restaurant and she becomes his angel/caretaker after he insists on "eating something alive" (a wriggling octopus) and collapses in front of her.
The main villain, played by Korean matinee idol Yoo Ji-tae, is the smugly handsome and almost insultingly young-looking Lee Woo-jin, a rich and powerful mystery man who keeps dogging Oh even after the escape, sending him cell phones, cash and taunting messages and playing with his head until the final inevitable showdown.
"Oldboy's" logic is the stuff of bad dreams, yet, in the end, it makes a certain grisly sense, both as a personal tragedy and a socio-political allegory of the paranoia suffered by South Korea's over-40 generation (including both Choi and Park) at the hands of brutal leader Chun Doo Hwan, during an era of persecution and chaos.
Like Korean film master Im Kwon-taek and his own gifted contemporary Kim Ki-Duk ("Bad Guy," "Spring, Summer, Fall and Spring"), Park has absorbed the American movie thriller style completely and melded it with a certain art house sensitivity, intelligence, depth and flair. Supposedly, Park fell in love with movies at a college showing of Alfred Hitchcock's great romantic thriller "Vertigo," and "Oldboy" has some of that film's mix of glamour, mystery and terrorand its overwhelming romantic angst. We've all suffered, Park seems to say, but few more than my anti-hero Oh, the man with the cauterized soul and sad killer eyes in a nightmare world.
Directed by Park Chanwook; written by Hwang Jo-yun, Lim Joo-hyung, Park, from an original story by Tsuchiya Garon and Minegishi Nobuaki; photographed by Jung Jung-hoon; edited by Kim Sang-bum; production designed by Yoo Seong-hee; music by Cho Young-wuk; score by Shim Hyun-jung, Lee Ji-soo; produced by Kim Dong-joo. A Tartan Films release; opens Friday at the Landmark Century Centre, 2828 N. Clark St., Chicago. Running time: 2:00. MPAA rating: R (for strong violence including scenes of torture, sexuality and pervasive language).
Oh Dae-su - Choi Min-sik
Lee Woo-jin - Yoo Ji-tae
Mido - Gang Hye-jung
No Joo-hwan - Chi Dae-han
Park Cheol-woong - Oh Dal-su
Chief Guard (Mr. Han) - Kim Byoung-ok