More than any single Korean film as yet released stateside, Park Chanwook’s Oldboy crystallizes the reigning characteristic of its national new wave: narratives driven by unbound emotionalism, and often driven like kamikaze stock cars. You can practically hear the cinephiliac sigh of satisfaction—here, finally, is an importable cinema that is neither Miramax-homogeneous nor benumbed by desolate art-film torpor. Commonly remaking psychodrama into epic heart-pulping tragedy, Korean movies—even comedies like Kwak Jae-young’s My Sassy Girl—tend to play for keeps. Feverish and knotted in hot fury, Oldboy may stand for now as the movement’s key exercise in primal-scream therapy. There’s little chance of emerging from it unexhausted and unscathed by its cataract of rage and regret.
Like Park’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy functions as a convulsion of cascading revenge scenarios, but its structural strategies are not easily parsed at first. We are brought face-to-face with Oh Daesu (Choi Min-sik), a mopey middle-aged middle-classer sodden at the tail end of a miserable binge; soon, he awakes imprisoned in a window-less cell dolled up to resemble a chintzy hotel room, complete with cable TV. Narrating after the fact, Daesu informs us that his unidentified jailers gas the room occasionally to clean up, cut his hair, and bandage his self-inflicted wounds while he is anesthetized. Years pass—the luckless victim is fed nothing but fried dumplings, watches a lot of TV (witnessing hunks of history as network news, including 9-11), takes to writing his life story in a notebook so as to fathom who might be exacting such an extravagant vendetta upon him, and occasionally hallucinates digital ants emerging from his skin. It is at this point that the motivated viewer should parcel away this and all reviews for later consultation; Oldboy‘s Grand Guignol torque is a draft best taken fresh from the vein.
Eventually Daesu, after 15 years in inexplicable captivity, is released back into the world, but then his travails only begin anew. His deranged lust for retribution pulls him in one direction as his still-unknown tormentor’s scheme continues to yank him along in ways that aren’t clear to anyone until the hair-whitening finale. Park’s is a remarkably brutal film—the warfare waged on teeth and tongue will separate the pulp geeks from the average filmgoers—but because the story is constructed on such an epic scale emotionally, it fences off a Shakespearean estate for itself in today’s moviescape. (Actually, classical Greek drama, John Webster, and the silent films of Tod Browning may be more appropriate corollaries, all stewed together.) Once you witness Choi stuff a live octopus into his mouth and endure Park’s madcap shitstorm of CGI time-and-space curlicues, you can understand why Takashi Miike has been invoked by shortcutting critics seeking to express the film’s experience. But if Miike is the Jello Biafra of new Asian pulp, Park is its Clash. Whatever its oversteps and excesses (I do think Park ran a little amok with the computer gimcrackery), Oldboy has the bulldozing nerve and full-blooded passion of a classic.
“You seek revenge, or do you find the truth?” someone says deep in, and like any good noir the movie effortlessly opens wide with questions about punishment, justice, fate, and ethical hygiene. Indeed, the story boils down, as so many Asian melodramas do, to that free-fire zone of modern moral struggle: high school. Winning the top prize from a Tarantino-headed Cannes jury, Oldboy may be a filmmaker’s tour de force, but props should also be delivered to Choi, whose wretched, Herculean performance as the new millennium’s Job could restore your faith in the selfless courage of acting.