New Spin with 'Oldboy' (Film Review)

From spring of 2003 until my graduation in May 2006, I wrote many articles for several sections of my college newspaper, the Los Angeles Loyolan. Here's one of my Arts & Entertainment articles.
New Spin with 'Oldboy'

Mark J. Lehman
Assistant A & E Editor

Originally published March 30, 2005

The new Korean film by Park Chan-wook has a truly scary concept for college students—a man gets supremely inebriated and wakes up imprisoned for 15 years.

While most will not actually be worried about this sort of scenario playing out in their own lives, this is precisely the situation in which the main characer finds himself in 2003’s “Oldboy,” just now being released in America.

A detective-style mystery film that borrows from such eclectic sources as film noir, Victorian literature and classical greek tragedy, “Oldboy” is certainly something new in the theaters.

The film centers on Oh Dae-su—a family man and business man—who comes to in a small hotel room one day and is kept locked inside for 15 years only to be released one day, handed a cell phone by a stranger, and challenged to figure out who put him away and why. Truly a psychologically heavy film, “Oldboy” keeps one guessing for the majority of its running time and even after the finale leaves its viewers disturbed and questioning.

Don’t be disheartened, though. To keep the film going at a steady, non-breakneck pace, director Chan-wook throws in flashbacks and humor, and he uses narration by the main character as an effective plot device to show the complex mental breakdown that slowly torments Dae-su.

Choi Min-sik, who plays Dae-su, gives a haunting performance as a man who has lost everything and drifts from scene to scene of his life with the on thought of revenge on his mind. At times his quest reeks of the Count of Monte Cristo story, an element of which the director is very much aware and even inserts a direct reference to the book. However, it seems Chan-wook only makes reference to that story so that people will realize just how he has manipulated it to create an intense new twist on an old concept.

Chan-wook also pulls a few strings with his visuals and camera work, which is highly stylized and uses dynamic camera movement to help convey emotion at times and static shots in parts to let the elements of the story speak for themselves.

The screenwriters deserve major credit here because the script is taut and dizzying. While at times one might question the reality of the situation, the different characters that come into play and their seemingly inconsequential roles that turn out to be essential make the story one which must be paid attention in great detail to fully grasp all the intricacies. In other words, one viewing just isn’t enough.

The only real issue that the film has trouble with is that of believability. It’s difficult to imagine real people acting the way some of these characters do in these types of situations, but fortunately for the film, these types of situations don’t come up too often in real life so it’s difficult to say what anyone would do if confronted by one.

Rarely does a film come along that is so haunting and gritty that vivid images stay in one’s mind for long after the film has ended. Chan-wook and his writers have created a truly bizarre and thrilling story in “Oldboy,” and one which will leave anyone who sees it reviewing and replaying and remembering it for weeks.

Grade A-
[Los Angeles Loyolan web site does not have archives available this far back.]
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