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Korea’s vengeful dish best served ‘Old’

Brian Doxtader | Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Park Chan-wook’s “Oldeuboi” (“Oldboy”) demonstrates that Korean films are suddenly at the creative forefront of world cinema. Few films are as bold and strange, as its revenge story unfolds unpredictably into something much larger and more bizarre.

Screened at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, “Oldboy” marked a new high in Korean cinema as it surpassed the standard Park set with “Joint Security Area” four years prior.

The film’s labyrinth plot begins innocuously enough, opening with Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-Sik), an ordinary businessman, who gets drunk on his daughter’s birthday. Oh Dae-Su is suddenly and mysteriously abducted. He spends years in a small room, being taken care of by unknown forces.

Eventually he is let out into the world and immediately begins seeking revenge on his tormentors. This sets in motion the second act, which seems like a straightforward revenge plot. It is not until the shocking final act that the depth of the film’s perverse logic becomes clear and “Oldboy” elevates itself into something far more than the sum of its parts. Its logic, while twisted, ultimately works and grants “Oldboy” a satisfyingly jarring conclusion that stays with the audience as few thrillers can.

Like a Tarantino film, “Oldboy” is able to transcend its pulpy origins thanks to the directorial panache of Park Chan-wook. Park’s previous film “Joint Security Area” opened to critical acclaim and helped bring the director international notoriety.

He brings the same energy and creativity to “Oldboy.” The film is fantastically stylized and almost cartoonishly excessive, but the film’s melodramatic style largely works.

Much of the film’s success can be attributed to lead actor Choi Min-Sik, whose staggering performance is the glue that controls the picture and holds it together. Choi runs a gamut of emotional and physical trials with conviction, which makes the more difficult aspects of the picture somewhat easier to handle. Among his highlights as a performer are a tracking shot in which he brutalizes a gang, and a scene involving an octopus that cannot be adequately expressed in words.

Gang Hye-jeong is also quite good as Oh Dae-Su’s love interest Mido – her innocence and beauty provide a counterpoint to his crazed thirst for vengeance. Yu Ji-tae, as Lee Woo-jin, the film’s antagonist, brings a melancholy sadness to a role that has a startling amount of depth.

The DVD, as expected, has English subtitles to complement the Korean Dolby Digital 6.1 EX track. There is also an English dub track that should be avoided at all costs. Additionally, there is a commentary track from Park and cinematographer Jeong-hun Jeong, an interview with Park and some deleted scenes with optional director’s commentary. Though these features are all engaging, enough interest in the film may lead to a better DVD somewhere down the line.

It’s difficult to categorize a film like “Oldboy.” The film is often difficult to watch, but it has such confidence and bravura that it’s impossible to ignore. It is a significant milestone for Korean cinema and its key director, Park Chan-wook, who asserts himself as one of the world’s premier talents.

“Oldboy” is recommended, but try not to eat anything before watching it.