Chanwook's atmospheric revenge tale follows a Seoul businessman Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) who sobers up from an evening of hard drinking at the local police station. On his way home, Dae-su is kidnapped and taken to a windowless apartment, where he is inexplicably held hostage for the next 15 years.
Like a wildly proliferating virus, the longer Oldboy goes, the more insane it grows. Oldboy eventually shape-shifts from a Kafkaesque prison tale of Dae-su's endless days spent watching TV and punching the prison wall to a Death Wish-hellbent tale about a salaryman-turned-homicidal outlaw.
When Dae-su finally escapes his dripping, tomblike prison, he's been hardwired for revenge.
Hiding behind a curtain of long black hair that shades his eyes like Clint Eastwood's spaghetti Western sombrero, Dae-su embarks on a quest to find the man who held him captive. His accomplice is a comely sushi chef named Mido (Gang Hye-jung) who he meets one night when he stops at her restaurant and asks to eat something still living. An obliging girl, Mido offers Dae-su a writhing octopus, which he devours until only a single slithering tentacle dangles from his mouth.
Chanwook's snazzy ultraviolent thugs with their mod hairstyles and black suits will be familiar to fans of Quentin Tarantino (who sat on the Cannes jury that awarded Oldboy its Grand Jury Prize).
The film's oddball combination of moral heaviness and unbelievable narrative comes courtesy of the hysterical highs and lows of Hong Kong cinema. But Chanwook's story of intricate, calmly undertaken revenge seems drawn more from the cinematic samurai's view of life. When the reason for Dae-su's captivity is finally revealed, rather than caving in upon itself, as such a ludicrous revelation would demand, Oldboy reaches a new level of outrageousness that borders on poetic.
With its octo-gastronomy, a sadistic tooth extraction, and Dae-su's insect hallucinations, Oldboy resembles the extreme Euro-shock cinema of directors like Gaspar Noe and Catherine Breillat. Like Noe's Irreversible, Oldboy's mise en scene of gunk-smeared hallways and claustrophobic rooms decorated in shades of dung and blood suggests - in visual terms - the twisted contours of Dae-su's head trip.
If one is inclined to see a particularly dark parable of the human condition in Dae-su's predicament - escaping one prison, only to find himself trapped in a larger, less obvious one - there is a case to be made for that metaphor.
But where Oldboy succeeds is in its grindhouse spectacle and high-flying style that suggests the director one-upping himself, concocting ever more extreme situations to carry his story along on a river of rage and gore. At times, the fury is operatic, edging toward sublime, as in a fight scene where Dae-su returns to his noirish prison in search of his captor and finds innumerable bad guys waiting to attack like video game foes activated when the director pushes a button.
Most directors would shoot the scene as a frantically edited fracas of bodies bouncing off each other. But Chanwook shoots the scene in long shot, as a rectangular frieze of prolonged violence. As Dae-su walks to the right with his only weapon, a trusty head-splitting hammer, the thugs keep coming at him in a ceaseless stream at the left.
Oldboy is explosive and crazed. But in this and other moments, the film is also remarkably still and dead calm, suggesting the merry-go-round rhythms of a disturbing dream.
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