Saturday 5 November 2022

Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003)

Park Chan-wook's brutal Oldboy turns 20 next year, and for this special anniversary the film will be re-released in cinemas.  Nearly two decades ago, the Raindance Film Festival hosted the film's UK premiere and now, as then, the festival proves to be ahead of the curve by showing the film on the big screen just before its wider release rolls around.  A superb 4K restoration of Oldboy has been available on home video for some time but, given the film's legion of fans, this is unlikely to impact on the ability of a theatrical re-release to do decent business.  The Mavericks strand at this year's Raindance sees Park's film screen alongside three other titles from the nineties and noughties that received their UK premieres at the festival: Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick's The Blair Witch Project, and Christopher Nolan's Memento.  Of this trio, it is Memento that has the strongest thematic connection to Oldboy; both of these revenge films feature a desperate protagonist who's largely in the dark as to the origin of his great misfortune.  

While Nolan's jaw-dropping film may be the better of the two, Oldboy is still a terrific ride, and one that is most definitely not for the squeamish.  Its outing at this year's Raindance coincides with the general release of Park's new film Decision to Leave, a typically immaculate yet strangely unsatisfying work that wowed the festival circuit, with Park scooping the Best Director Award at the most recent edition of Cannes.  Oldboy is the middle instalment in Park Chan-wook's Vengeance Trilogy, which began with 2002's Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and concluded with 2005's Lady Vengeance.  While all three films received great acclaim, Oldboy remains the highest-profile entry in this gruelling triptych and, a decade on from its initial release, the film's considerable success led to a poorly received English-language remake directed by Spike Lee. 

It is quite difficult to say much about Oldboy's story without venturing into spoiler territory, but the action centres on Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), a father, husband and businessman who is suddenly abducted while drunk; Dae-su is then taken to a private prison where he is held without explanation for 15 years.  During his incarceration, Dae-su learns that his wife has been killed and that he is being framed for her murder.  Upon his sudden, mysterious release from the facility, he attempts to find his daughter, but learns that she has been adopted by a family in Sweden; Dae-su then switches his attention to tracking down those responsible for his imprisonment.  While stopping off at a sushi bar to consume a live octopus, Dae-su meets young chef Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung), and the two form a close bond.  Dae-su's dogged enquiries eventually lead him to powerful businessman Lee Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae), who may know a thing or two about the terrible fate that has befallen our protagonist.

Oldboy's brilliance is partly due to the way in which it puts both its central character and the viewer in the same position, à la Memento, with the audience and Dae-su in sync with each other as the grim revelations start to pile up.  Dae-su's quest for vengeance is a particularly horrifying one, and thankfully Park scatters a few crumbs of absurd humour to ensure that viewers make it through what is a very intense experience, the pinnacle of which takes the form of a late face-off between Dae-su and his nemesis Woo-jin; it's a bravura moment, and one of the finest sequences in Park Chan-wook's filmography.  While much has rightly been made of Choi's incredible performance in Oldboy, Yoo is equally superb in the less showy role of Woo-jin, and it's a pity that his excellent contribution here is often overlooked, with discussions on the film frequently revolving around any combination of Choi, Park and the very unfortunate octopus.  Over the past 20 years, Park Chan-wook has made some fine films—2013's Stoker is particularly impressive—but he has never bettered the black-hearted, mesmerising Oldboy.

Darren Arnold