In 2003 Quentin Tarantino chaired the Cannes jury that awarded its Grand Prix to Oldboy by Chanwook Park. Park and Tarantino have much in common: both make recklessly creative, ultra-violent thrillers that take place in a reality that resembles ours but never quite behaves like it; both seem, at times, to have more talent than they know what to do with; and both make critics, fans and filmmakers alike talk about the future of movies being in safe hands.
One night podgy, unpleasant businessman Oh Dae-Su is abducted as he staggers drunk from a police station – and imprisoned, without explanation, for 15 years. Whenever his room needs cleaning or his hair needs cutting music is played, gas is released and he is soon unconscious. And so, for a decade and a half, his only human contact is the odd glimpse of the guards who bring him his daily fried dumplings.
He has a television set, which becomes his ‘school, home, church, friend and lover’, and from which he learns his that wife has been murdered and he is the only suspect. Aside from watching TV, he spends his days writing a diary that lists everyone he feels he has ever offended, and torturing himself with one of those inhumanly punishing fitness regimes that only mortally wronged movie heroes hell-bent on transforming themselves into one-man firestorms of vengeance ever seem to undertake.
And then, just as inexplicably as he was kidnapped, he is released. A tramp saunters up to him, hands over a mobile phone and a wallet stuffed with cash, and soon Oh Dae-Su learns he has just five days to work out why, and by whom, he was imprisoned. Here begins a mystery a complex as anything Philip Marlowe had to cope with in The Big Sleep, and as disturbing as anything Jake Gittes faced in Chinatown.
Criticism of Oldboy has often stressed that it doesn’t give a realistic impression of the length of Oh Dae-Su’s confinement. It’s true that other films have better detailed the minutiae of long-term imprisonment, but they were prison movies, and the stultifying routine of life behind bars was often their main theme. Oldboy’s theme isn’t incarceration but revenge; what is important is not that we experience the ceaseless boredom of 15 years’ solitary confinement, but that we see the effect it has on Oh Dae-Su. And – whether we are watching him recoil as imaginary ants burst from beneath his skin, or wincing as punches the walls of his cell until he collapses to his knees in agony – we see that as vividly as we could ever wish to.
Few movies this extreme (and, be warned, Oldboy is extreme) manage to be half as good. Here, for once, the violence, sex and swearing really do teach us something about the characters, and really are integral to the plot. So assured and intelligent is Park’s handling of his material that even the movie’s most infamous scene, in which the newly freed Oh Dae-Su devours a live octopus, its tentacles thrashing and twining around his wrist as he chews off its head, never seems the distasteful gimmick it would have been in a thousand lesser films. Certainly it is arresting, repulsive even, but it is also apt, neatly expressing Oh Dae-Su’s need to both engage with and rage against life.
An even greater tribute to its director’s talent is that this scene is far from Oldboy’s most memorable. That honour surely goes to the staggering scene, shown entirely in one long, unbroken shot, in which Oh Dae-Su, having returned to the site of his incarceration armed only with a hammer, fights his way along a corridor crowded with a dozen hostile heavies. The action scrolls steadily from left to right, and so recalls a computer game. The violence, however, is frighteningly realistic. It is also close to senseless – these men are not truly enemies but merely obstacles – and the relentlessness of his aggression, even as a knife protrudes from his back, teaches us more about the intensity of Oh Dae-Su’s frustration than could be conveyed in twenty pages of dialogue.
It’s an indication of the quality and pace of Oldboy that everything I’ve described so far happens in its first 45 minutes. There’s more to praise, too, than just the confidence of the direction and the fascinating story: the central performance deserves to make Min-Sik Choi an international superstar; the colour scheme, all muted greens and dirty greys, perfectly reinforces the dark and unforgiving tone; and the plot, though labyrinthine and openly improbable, is never nonsensical.
Since the late 1990s, South Korea has been producing the most exciting cinema on the planet, and it was Oldboy that won the world’s attention. As with any young film, and this one is only a few years old, there’s a chance it won’t seem as vibrant and dazzling in 15 or 30 years’ time – but there is no chance it will ever slip quietly from the memory of anyone who sees it. Oldboy is an electrifying thriller, and one of the movies of the decade.