Hinging on a narrative as Byzantine and distorted as a festering grudge, the astonishingly visceral "Oldboy" plays like an extended adrenaline rush following a bad accident. At once real and completely unreal, familiar and deeply strange, violent and comically absurd, South Korean director Park Chanwook's fourth movie, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 2004, releases a torrent of imagery as fluid and shifting as a nightmare.
As much as it's about anything recognizable, "Oldboy" is a story about the transformative power of hatred and revenge. It begins with a scene culled straight from a 1970s exploitation movie: A wild-haired man dangles another man off the edge of a building by his tie. He could be Charles Bronson, but he's Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), and he's merely delaying the other guy's suicide long enough to tell his own story.
Oh Dae-su has spent the last 15 years imprisoned in a dingy hotel room by an unknown captor for reasons that have never been explained to him. Released only moments ago (the suicidal man is the first human Dae-su has seen, and he touches him disbelievingly, like a long-lost lover), Dae-su's first impulse is to tell his tale.
He starts at the beginning: An ordinary Seoul businessman with a wife and a baby daughter, Dae-su is arrested one night for drunk and disorderly conduct. His friend Joo-hwan (Chi Dae-han) picks him up from the police station, and they stop at a pay phone on the way home. While Joo-hwan talks to Dae-su's little girl, her father disappears.
He comes to in a hotel room with a carpet and wallpaper so thoughtlessly ugly and banal as to seem horrifying. For the next 15 years, Dae-su eats Chinese takeout (fried dumplings only), teaches himself to box, fills notebooks with the names of people he has hurt in his life ("I've lived an ordinary life," he thinks. "I've sinned so much") and watches television. "It's a clock and a calendar," he says in voice-over. "It's your school, home, church, friend and lover." It's also how he finds out that his wife has been murdered and he has been blamed for the crime.
What at first seems like a Sartrean nightmare for the Ramada Inn crowd, however, evolves into a cat-and-mouse tale of revenge. Not long after Dae-su manages to escape, he's hypnotized and released and given new clothes, money and a cellphone. His first stop is a Japanese restaurant, where he meets Mido (Gang Hye-jung), a beautiful young sushi chef, eats a live octopus, gets his first call from his enemy and passes out on the bar.
Too intricate and too full of strange imagery to recount in detail, the plot of "Oldboy" takes Dae-su and Mido on a treasure hunt for his enemy that only gets weirder and more violent as the movie progresses. Dae-su finds the building where he was imprisoned by trying the fried dumplings at every Chinese restaurant with the words "Blue Dragon" in the name. (His clue was a scrap of a takeout menu he found in one of his meals.) He reunites with Joo-hwan and comes to suspect Mido, only to trust her again after his enemy reveals himself.
The enemy, Lee Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae), is completely unknown to Dae-su. A mastermind if ever there was one, Woo-jin has given Dae-su five days to figure everything out. This is the first of at least two twists that feel like the climax until "Oldboy" turns another corner -- once Dae-su figures out who Woo-jin is and why he hates him, he must decide whether it was knowing what happened to him or avenging it that matters. And there's more.
Chanwook was a philosophy student before he was a filmmaker, and underneath the frenetic action lurk unanswered questions about guilt, responsibility and morality. The central question, close on the heels of every hairpin plot twist, is whether an immoral act is still immoral if the sinner is unaware.
For a movie that feels like a pure pop explosion, it contains hardly a single pop reference. During his time in the hotel room, Dae-su marks the passage of time by watching TV. But the way in which even momentous major news events are funneled into his little room (in split screen we watch him watching reports on the death of Princess Diana, the turn of the millennium, the fall of the World Trade Center) makes them seem contained by the screen, completely foreign to Dae-su's experience.
It makes sense: The character of Dae-su is consumed with the personal, as is his enemy, whose motives, when they are revealed, seem almost surreally subjective. It says something when you come out of a film as weird and fantastical as "Oldboy" and feel that you've experienced something truly authentic. I just don't know what. I can't think of anything to compare it to.
MPAA rating: R for strong violence including scenes of torture, sexuality and pervasive language.
Times guidelines: Gory and graphically violent; nudity and explicit sex scenes.
Choi Min-sik...Oh Dae-su
Yoo Ji-tae...Lee Woo-jin
Chi Dae-han...No Joo-hwan
A Tartan Films release. Director Park Chanwook. Producer Kim Dong-joo. Screenplay by Hwang Jo-yun and Lim Joon-hyung. Story by Tsuchiya Garon & Minegishi Nobuaki. Director of photography Jung Jung-hoon. Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes. In Korean, with English subtitles.