Wow. Just simply, wow. This is something of a white-knuckle ride in cinematic terms. From the gentle rumble and gradual change of pace at the beginning of the ride, when you’re slightly nervous and anticipation tingles on your tongue like the taste of brushed steel, to the sudden realization that you’re about to be hurled headlong into a situation that’s frantic, disorienting and that you’re unable to exert control over, to the sweet relief of the denouement, where you emerge breathless, exhilarated and buzzing with adrenaline. Like the metaphorical ride, it leaves you with a sense of relief that it’s all over and the counter-intuitive feeling that you may just want to do it all again.
Never the one to shy away from hyperbole, I insist you see this Korean diamond before someone like me spoils it by going on and on about how good it is (James, are you listening?). The premise of Oldeuboi (Oldboy) (2003) is deceptively simple, the protagonist, Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) has had a little too much to drink one evening and is on his way home to his daughter’s birthday party when he is inconvenienced by being arrested and abusing the cops. They eventually let him go when his friend turns up to bail him out. His friend leaves the police station to make a call and Dae-su is gone when he gets back. Dae-su awakes to find himself imprisoned in a small cell, in which he is fed and occasionally gassed so he can be groomed and washed. What he doesn’t know, is that he will be there for 15 years.
One day, he awakes to find himself on the roof of a building with a suitcase full of cash, an expensive suit and no idea how he got there. He is free. Or so he imagines. It soon becomes apparent that he must find his captor, and do it within five days. Incidentally, I use the word ‘protagonist’ here because I don’t feel I can’t truthfully use the word ‘hero’. You’ll really need to see it to appreciate why.
I hope I have been suitably vague in my description of the film’s events. I really don’t want to spoil it for you. What I am able to disclose is that the story is very well crafted and the little twists, turns and asides that director and co-writer Chan-wook Park throws our way during the ride don’t disappoint. People will tell you there are plot holes and, yes, there may be a couple, but I think that if you watched this simply for continuity errors and/or plot inconsistencies, you would not only be missing the majesty of the piece but may also need to leave your mother’s basement occasionally and get some sun, as your melatonin levels are probably low. From each jarring smash-cut to every sickening scene transition the story undulates in intensity, offering rare and tender insights into the previous life of Dae-su, contrasted sharply by scenes of high-intensity graphic violence. The retina-burning colours smoothly supplanted by washed-out, tired and faded visions of the past all expertly handled so you’re barely aware you’re being manipulated, as the majority of the main characters so obviously are.
As promised, I at least will not spoil anything for you. I will just leave here: If you have a strong constitution, do not mind some high-quality, graphic violence and people eating live octopodes, you’re in for an absolute cinematic treat. Oh, sorry – did I not mention the live octopus? My bad.
120 mins. In Korean.