Oh Daesu (Minsik Choi) has no clue why he’s been imprisoned in a Seoul hotel room. He watches TV, shadowboxes, and even attempts suicide when he learns he’s been blamed for his wife’s murder. His captors release Chechen nerve gas and he passes out, whereupon he is groomed and cared for. Then, after 15 years of captivity, he inexplicably is released to seek revenge.
Like the stereogram wallpaper in Oh Daesu’s hotel-room cell, nothing is what it seems in Chanwook Park’s Oldboy, a play on the Hitchcockian conceit of an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation. Oh Daesu has five days to figure out the “who and why” of his captivity, or else his newfound lover will be killed. Part revenge tale, part Greek tragedy (in the vein of Aeschylus’ Oresteia) and part Asian horror film, Oldboy is clever eye candy.
The film’s most notable moments are its technical achievements, like the oft-mentioned hallway sequence where Oh Daesu takes on some 100 Korean gangsters with a hammer, all filmed in a single take. Park shuns convention, rejecting shot, reverse-shot coverage and employing a bleach-bypass film-development technique to create an unusual palette of colors, reinforcing Oh Daesu’s bewilderment. Yeongwook Jo’s industrial-techno and classical score enhances the confusion, as does the use of Vivaldi’s “Winter” during what’s easily the best dentistry sequence since Marathon Man.
The Quentin Tarantino-led jury awarded Oldboy the Grand Prix, or second-place award, at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, which speaks more to the content of the film than its caliber. The film is high-art Asian grindhouse: It dazzles with its untamed action, which in turn helps the viewer overlook narrative improbabilities. For instance, how could Oh Daesu transform into the ultimate fighting machine on a 15-year diet of soggy dumplings and no sunlight?
That said, if you like your octopus raw and your apples not far from the tree, then Oldboy’s a must see.