Based on a manga (not an anime, I'm cheating a bit here), Oldboy was the second and, arguably, best part of Park Chan-wook's Vengeance Trilogy. It cemented Korean cinema in the West as something to really look out for and received a cult status pretty quickly, even spawning an upcoming remake by Spike Lee, starring Josh Brolin.
Taking a page out of Alexandre Dumas' classic tale The Count Of Monte Cristo, Oldboy follows an average guy, played by Choi Min-sik, who is inexplicably kidnapped by an unknown enemy and kept locked away in a room for 15 years without any clue as to why he was taken or by whom. Finally, he is released and sets out to find his incarcerator and get his revenge. Along the way, he meets a young girl called Mi-do (a terrific Kang Hye-jung) who befriends him and starts helping him with his disturbing quest. What follows is a truly brutal and unpleasant journey full of teeth-pulling, live octopus eating, head hammering, tongue-cutting and horrible revelations. What makes Oldboy so interesting is that, unlike, say, something like Kill Bill, this is a revenge story but it's unclear whose revenge it is, really, and who deserves that revenge the most. Most of the film is like watching an ant slowly burn under a magnifying glass, there's a sadistic feel to the whole thing that mirrors the film's bad guy (Yoo Ji-tae) and his obsessions as well as our bizarre desire to see someone go through something this dehumanising. Oldboy is, indeed, about revenge but really it's all about incarceration, both physical and psychological, and about how crossing certain boundaries can affect everything in one's life. A few sayings are repeated throughout the film: "Even though I am no better than a beast, don't I have the right to live?" and "Laugh and the world laughs with you, weep and you weep alone". Those sayings tell you a lot about these characters and set the theme for the whole film.
The events that unfold during Oldboy are mostly violent and raw but the film's execution is slick, almost operatic. Jo Yeong-wook's beautiful score gives the film a waltz-like, poetic quality and contrasts completely with our imprisoned protagonist's difficult journey. A similar technique is used in the director's most recent effort Thirst. Oldboy is also about how blind one can become when only focused on revenge: Oh Dae-su (Min-sik) gets a few chances to leave all this behind him or take a different path but he decides to keep going down the path of vengeance, which ends up costing him dearly. Some of the film's most memorable highlights include a corridor fight in which Oh Dae-su fights his way through a barricade of thugs armed with only a hammer, bizarre hallucinations involving ants and an end twist which will leave a truly bad taste in your mouth. Choi Min-sik's performance is a tour-de-force and poor old Josh Brolin will have his work cut out trying to match it. It's hard to picture any other cast playing the roles depicted in this original version, frankly, but we shall see. Park Chan-wook's film works brilliantly as a thriller and a mystery but isn't without the odd burst of dark humour: there's a recurring visual gag involving some angel wings, Oh Dae-su goes through a couple of funky haircuts and there's even a suicidal guy with a poodle. This all helps make Oldboy, not only a captivating ride to hell but an entertaining flick overall.
Oldboy is a messed-up film, for sure, but it's one that's so well made, so atmospheric and so unique that it more than deserves its cult hit status and it's, quite simply, a must-see. Every chapter in the Vengeance Trilogy is highly recommended, especially this one.
An unsettling masterpiece.