Film review: “Oldboy”

Everyone loves a good revenge story. Quentin Tarantino’s cinematic orgy “Kill Bill,” for all its formal splendor, was driven by an all-too-simple narrative: Bill tried to kill the Bride, and now the Bride is going to kill Bill. If one were subtract that film’s cartoonish dismemberments, decapitations and smartass postmodernist references and add a convoluted, well-crafted mystery, hard-hitting realism and violence and subject matter almost animalistic in nature, the result would look something like South Korean filmmaker Chan-Wook Park’s 2004 Cannes Film Festival Grand Prize winner “Oldboy” (Tartan USA).

Without explanation from his captors, businessman Oh Dae-Su (Min-Sik Choi) is kidnapped and held captive in a motel-style room for 15 years, his only company a TV and bad fried dumplings. Over this period, he physically trains to become an unstoppable beast who will stop at nothing, including torture, to discover his captor and the motive behind his internment.

“Oldboy’s” principal strength lies in the brutal tour-de-force performance of leading man Min-Sik Choi. He brings Oh Dae-su to fiery realization; just as with Uma Thurman’s Bride, Choi’s dual success brings the audience’s sympathy to Dae-Su for the terrible wrong done unto him and excuses the take-no-prisoners violence he does unto his enemies.

Chan-Wook Park’s taut, claustrophobic stylistics and directorial choices grant the film an enrapturing, fast-paced quality. Park manages to do this without falling into the terrible Michael Bay trap of speed-freak editing; the most stunning and memorable shot of the film is a long, edit-free tracking shot of Dae-Su, armed with nothing but a hammer, cutting through around two dozen attackers in a hallway, a testament to Park’s restraint and abilities in fight choreography. Cinematographer Jeong-Hun Jeong’s high-contrast work here adds to the film’s gritty, no-holds barred atmosphere. The level of disturbing psychology informing the film’s story is on par with Oedipus Rex; it’s so disturbing, in fact, that one can’t imagine any American commercial studio executive greenlighting “Oldboy” for production. So much the better.

“Oldboy” is open now at Landmark E St. Cinema.n

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