This twisted revenge tale is a masterpiece of stylized action and a visceral stomach-churn of ultra-violence that leaves you utterly breathless
How do you prepare someone for their first viewing of Oldboy? Where do you set their expectations?
Oldboy is a viewing experience unlikely to be directly equalled. There will not be anything quite like it again. It somehow manages to change you as a film viewer forever.
It is one of those special moments in cinema history where Korea’s most talented modern director was at his most fearless, working with a lead actor born to bring our protagonist alive, collaborating on a story of baffling uniqueness.
While Oldboy is one of Korea's most successful and recognisable international hits, it is sometimes charted as a “cult classic”. As more of a midnight movie of excessive violence rather than what it really is – a profoundly influential watershed contribution to modern Korean cinema.
It is not just the story it tells, but the way it exposes the human condition – vengeful, petty, born into suffering and filled with fury at our own misfortune.
The initial set-up alone sets the tone as we fall into its rabbit hole and never quite escape. Oh Dae-su, played by the always-brilliant Choi Min-sik, wakes in a hotel-style prison room that will entrap him for the next 15 years.
With TV as his only company, Dae-su learns that his wife has been murdered and the crime is pinned on him. He passes the years shadowboxing, plotting his revenge and attempting to dig a tunnel to escape.
After he is suddenly released one day, he sets about learning why this fate befell him and to seek revenge on his captors. Along the way he meets Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung), a young sushi restaurant chef, who tries to help him on his quest for answers.
After Oldboy, Park Chan-wook became the figurehead for New Wave Korean cinema and the stylish filmmaker was a considered perfectionist on the film’s set. Filming run well over schedule, mainly due to Park’s refusal to move onto a new scene until the current one was flawless.
Park was also highly spontaneous on set, making key decisions based on gut-feeling guided by his colossus natural talent.
In Choi, he had found a leading man with the depth to deliver Park's black humour, but also the tenderness to reach the emotional angst and terror of the film’s twists and turns.
The film is also defined by contributing two of the most famous scenes in the history of Korean cinema. Firstly, when Dae-su orders in the sushi bar by saying “I want something alive”, devouring a live octopus as its tentacles wraps around his face.
Then that corridor fight sequence, a battle that is somehow simultaneously theatrical and deeply grounded in realism. We see Dae-su's desperation writ large. How his collective will to gain his revenge is more powerful than an entire gang put together.
Oldboy stunned audiences at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, receiving an extended standing ovation and then propelling Korean cinema into a new stratosphere of global recognition. Things have not been the same since.