★★★ / ★★★★
After being picked up by a friend from the police station for being drunk and disorderly, Dae-su (Min-sik Choi) calls home to assure his wife and kid, the latter being her birthday, that he is on his way home. A period of time passes. Dae-su, now sober, wakes up in a room. For fifteen years, he is to endure the torment of not knowing who or why is being held captive. His sole companionship is the television. Using only chopsticks, he creates a path toward freedom. But just before he gets the chance to claim it, he is released.
“Oldboy,” written by Chan-wook Park, Chun-hyeong Lim and Jo-yun Hwang, is a tightly wrapped mystery-thriller, beautifully shot on the outside and with a real sinister core. It succeeds because it creates a wild but believable journey for its main character. We become a part of his discoveries and revenge so his story engages the emotions and the mind.
There is real craft behind the camera. Park is so confident between pulling in and out the action and personal interactions that controlling the camera becomes an elegant dance. When it moves in, there is emphasis on human connection; when it moves out we get a chance to ask ourselves if the connection is pure and true. Given that Dae-su, having been through years of torture and hypnosis, is afflicted with a certain level of memory loss while still dealing with the trauma of his trial, can he be a reliable protagonist? Another question worth asking: Are the people he comes to contact with trustworthy? In any case, the movement of the camera allows us to focus on the details of the game.
Tools that can be considered distracting are utilized with grace: split-screens, flashbacks, and extended unbroken shots. They work mainly because they function secondary to the story. They are elements to be manipulated in order to highlight or underline an intention or action—not to create a semblance of the story moving forward when it really is stuck. Take away the flourishing and the plot remains crystal clear. Its secrets uncoil slowly.
However, the middle portion’s pacing needs work. While the relationship between Dae-su and Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang), the woman he meets at a sushi bar, is necessary, the reconnection between Dae-su and his friend, Joo-hwan (Dae-han Ji) is forced. Once the latter’s presence is introduced, certain things—very mechanical—must occur to get from Point A to Point B. As a result, the momentum decreases. There are one too many conveniences that so happens to allow Dae-su to stumble upon answers.
Choi’s performance builds to a boil. The third act puts his talent front and center as he plays an empty shell of a man who is desperate and on the verge of breaking. I felt sorry for Dae-su and was uneasy because the screenplay plays with the idea that he might not get the vengeance that he believes (as do some of us) he deserves—one he has waited a decade and a half to execute.
“Oldeuboi,” directed by Chan-wook Park, does not rest on telling a straight forward revenge story. It must be noted that underneath the obsidian surface is a level of humanity. Those who choose not to look closer are likely to be impressed with the superficial twists. However, those who make an effort to see through the fog will recognize the themes involving loss: loved ones, time, innocence, memory, and identity.