Compellingly twisted conceptual narrative exercise that only lets it's self down with a sloppy ending. Otherwise, aces.
Chan-wook Park is rapidly approaching Takashi Miike's level of provocativity, both seemingly incapable of producing movies that aren't memorable and distinctive on some level. Not that this necessarily equates to making good movies, but it's a start. Park's latest, Oldboy is certainly a powerful piece of moviemaking, and despite some final act mis-steps it's certainly worthy of your attention.
Introduced to a happy go lucky but extremely inebriated businessman Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) in a police station, he wakes up with considerably more than a hangover. Kidnapped by unknown forces and locked in a rundown apartment, he doesn't know what he's done to deserve this, who did it to him and what he needs to do to stop it. With only a T. V. for company, Dae-su whiles away the time writing list of everyone he's wronged in a bid to work out who could be responsible and practicing his own improvised fighting style for use once he finds his nemesis.
And he has no shortage of time. It's fifteen years before his escape/release from this unconventional prison into a world where he's been framed for the murder of his wife. Quickly and seemingly randomly befriending a pretty young sushi chef Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang), he starts tracking down initially his gaolers and the people responsible for his incarceration at their hands.
At which point revealing any more details of the storyline would hinder your enjoyment of it, so let us halt for a moment of reflection. It's an intriguing little exercise in filmmaking, coming across something like Fincher's The Game rewritten by Ken Loach and directed by David Lynch, with a crazed, drunken vagrant coaching from the sidelines. What it isn't is realistic; the kind of plot that 'far-fetched' was born to describe. What it does do, with some great aplomb is spin its little narrative web with such pace that you're not going to be thinking about it in any detail until you leave the cinema, at which point you'd be advised not to over analyse it as it tends to fall apart on close inspection. It's rather silly really, and it has the single most twisted idea of a happy ending in recent cinematic history. Typically a critical flaw, but it's certainly one that can be overlooked for much of the time you'll be sat in front of Old Boy.
Honestly speaking, Min-Sik Choi and Ji-tae Yu aren't exactly household names, even in theOneliner's fairly well travelled Asian cinema household. That said, we've seen both of them before, Choi in mediocre blockbusting action flick Shiri and Yu in the rather more satisfying screwball comedy Attack The Gas Station!. They're both in fine fettle for this outing, Yu's providing a suitably irritating yuppie bad guy that plays like an even more skewed version of Lee Sung-jae's Cho in Public Enemy (look, it's obscure reference hour here at theOneliner, want to make something of it?). It's an effective showing from the youngster, especially given that he's in little more than a supporting role but the bulk of the plaudits deservedly go to Choi.
We can't exactly be sure what effects fifteen years of isolation from the outside world would have on us, but if we ended up as unashamedly bad ass as Dae-su does I'd be tempted to sign myself up for the same treatment. Not so sure about eating the live squid though, especially if it requires four attempts to get the shot in the can. Dedication to the acting profession, that. Still Dae-su's take-no-prisoners attitude to vengeance and single minded dedication to the cause is a shining example to us all and one well realised by Choi. It's this captivating performance that in no small part is responsible for the earlier sections of this film working in quite the spectacular fashion that they do, and it's through no fault on their part that the story somewhat dissipates towards the end of it's time.
Two hours isn't necessarily too long for a film of this type, but when the story runs out of it's normal progression (in relative terms) and takes an even darker turn in the last half hour through some shocking developments they not only stretch your suspension of disbelief but take a pretty good shot at shattering it utterly. Chop a quarter of an hour of fat in the denouement off this flick and leave it in the darkness that we've become accustomed to in Korean dramas and you have a contender for greatest film ever. As is stands with it's really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really bizarre and unsettling attempt at a happy ending it's pushing it's luck just a little too much.
Not the greatest movie ever then, but certainly a tremendously good movie. It one of the most conceptually intriguing movies I've seen this year, and for the most part this translates over to an enjoyable cinematic experience, I suppose it could be argued that when a movie ends up being too leftfield for even an unashamed oddball like myself then it's perhaps pushing the envelope a little to much, but that in my view is being curmudgeonly. Grant this movie the privilege of your five earth pounds and two hours of your time, and I'll guarantee that even if you didn't enjoy it as much as I did you'll still have got value for money in terms of a talking point. "I saw this really f***** up film last night...".
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.
Ji-tae Yu (Woo-jin Lee)
Hye-jeong Kang (Mi-do)