Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #112
Director: Park Chan-wook
Starring: Choi Min-sik and Yu Ji-tae
I love using this list as a way to discover national cinemas I've never explored before. While it undoubtedly causes some overgeneralization ("I've seen two Russian films, so Russian films are...") it also allows me a jumping off point for future viewing, and it introduces me to directors I'm not familiar with – something I'm always in favor of. Indeed, Park Chan-wook's Oldboy is the first Korean film I've ever seen. Blending elements of Japanese art house cinema with the less surreal elements of David Lynch's mind-bending mysteries, Chan-wook creates a stylistic identity all his own that emphasizes visually interesting shots, psychologically taut storytelling and dialogue, and scenes that would make the audience cringe – if they weren't so tastefully shot. Oldboy is, indeed, a revenge movie, befitting of its place in Chan-wook's "Vengeance Trilogy." But boiled down to its essence, it's a detective story centered on an unwilling detective with, we eventually find out, an unreliable version of what's happened to bring him to the point at which he currently finds himself.
It's impossible to discuss Oldboy without divulging a little bit of plot; it's just too complex. Since I feel the need to move the plot along to the ending to adequately discuss the film, there are SPOILERS ahead. Also, this might read a little bit clunky because I'm not going to use character names, so bear with me. Yeah, I find Korean names kind of cumbersome. Sue me.
After a context-free opening where a man holds a man by his collar over the edge of a building, Oldboy's first scene is deceptively lighthearted: A drunk man behaves boorishly in a police station until he is released. He calls his daughter on a pay phone to wish her a happy birthday. How thoughtful of him! Cue craziness. He's kidnapped and thrown into a hotel room. He learns on television that his wife has been killed and his daughter has been adopted by a Swedish family, and that he is a prime suspect in his wife's murder. His captors keep him docile with drugs and feed him only fried dumplings, and for fifteen long years he's kept in this hotel room. He's finally released, and he goes to a sushi bar to "eat something living," which turns out to be a writhing, whole octopus. He passes out, and the beautiful young sushi chef takes him home with her. They fall in love, and he continues his quest for revenge on his captor. He finds him, and is issued an ultimatum: Find out why I did this to you in five days and I will kill myself; don't, and I will kill your girlfriend. He takes on this charge, and finds out that the man who imprisoned him went to high school with him, and he caught him having sex with his sister. The man spread this around the school, and the captor's sister was eventually killed, either by suicide or by her brother's hand, after developing a phantom pregnancy. The revenge-seeker visits his captor to tell him that he knows why locked him up, that his payback was for his captor's payback.
But the imprisonment wasn't the payback at all...and this is where Oldboy blasts through the stratosphere: The fifteen-year imprisonment was actually a fifteen-year conditioning and hypnosis period, and the woman who our protagonist fell in love – and consummated that love – with was, in fact, his daughter, and all of it was orchestrated by the captor. Forced incest in exchange for tattled-upon incest. From here, our protagonist (rightly) melts down. He begs forgiveness for his past sins and cuts out his tongue as a gesture that he'll never tell his daughter if his captor agrees to do the same. The captor agrees, but after seeing flashbacks of the day that he assisted in his sister's suicide, he blows his brains out. Our protagonist recruits the same hypnotist who made him fall in love with his own daughter to erase that part of his memory. He awakens from the hypnosis to find...his daughter, whom he embraces with a smile. Does he know who she really is? Roll credits.
While Oldboy will always be talked about primarily for its amazing single-shot corridor fight scene – which is amazing, don't get me wrong – that one-two punch of the plot twist and the ambiguous ending is something Christopher Nolan can only dream about pulling off with as much subtlety – and I think that he is the fairest comparison point here. While I do believe that Nolan is a great filmmaker (possibly even the best working today), his use of plot twists and ambiguous endings would be a lot easier to stomach if they weren't all revealed by characters delivering monologues explaining them. In Oldboy, our protagonist (Oh Dae-su, if you must know his name) discovers that his lover is his daughter by thumbing through a planted photo album that showed her progressively growing up into the woman whom he knows as his girlfriend. The twist is in the visual, and Dae-su's horrified reaction is all the audience needs to understand the gravity. As to the ambiguous final shot, it's delivered with no more than a tiny smile: possibly wry and mischievous, implying known incest, or possibly just happy, happy to have the woman he loves back in his arms. It's the Mona Lisa smile of foreign cinema, and it's all we need to wage endless debates about the movie's ending.
All in all, Oldboy is one of the best foreign films I've ever seen. It's action-packed, mind-bending, well-acted, well-scripted, gorgeously shot, and expertly woven together by a director whom I'm now enticed to learn much more about. CNN called it the third-best Asian movie of all time in a 2008 poll, and while I used to think that sounded kind of high, I don't really have a problem with it anymore. It's tremendous on every level.
The Good: The last half hour pulls no punches in plot or visuals. Pure brilliance.
The Bad: Truly nothing.
The Skinny: I can dig it a lot higher than #112. The more I think and write about it, the more I like it and want to watch it again.