Movie Review – Oldboy (2003): A Korean Take on a Greek Tragedy

Director: Park Chan-wook
Cast: Choi Min-sik, Yoo Ji-tae, Kang Hye-jung
Language: Korean

Since I am not doing a review on a Greek film, this is the closest I could get! Park Chan-wook drew inspiration from the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex for his 2003 film, Oldboy, and if you’re thinking artsy and intellectual, you couldn’t be more wrong. Oldboy is a fast paced revenge thriller that will blow your mind with its relentlessly choreographed violence, a complex storyline of betrayal and thirst for revenge and retribution, as well as one of the best scores of our time.

At the beginning of the film, we meet Oh Dae-su: a drunkard who’s missing his baby daughter’s birthday handcuffed in a police station. A friend rushes to bail him out and helps him call his wife and daughter from a telephone booth to explain himself, but while said friend is on the phone with Dae-su’s wife, our 30-something drunkard mysteriously disappears. He wakes up in a shabby hotel room and that’s how 15 years of imprisonment begin.

In his prison, Dae-su is stripped of everything that makes him human; he is fed the same kind of food every day, served on a tray that is shoved in the room through a slot at floor level on the steel door that keeps him locked inside, he never sees the world outside the four walls surrounding him, his captors refuse to talk to him no matter how hard he curses or pleads, he is kept from killing himself, and his only companion is a TV. Through that TV he finds out that he is wanted for the murder of his wife and that his daughter has been adopted. If he is ever let out of his prison cell, he will be a wanted man with nothing left. He starts feeding on his need for revenge, punching the walls until his knuckles harden, filling one notebook after the other with the names of people he has hurt, people who might have chosen this way to seek revenge from him, digging a hole in the wall in the hope that someday, no matter how many years ahead, he will break out, find the man who’s destroyed his life, and make him pay. And when he finally manages to dig a hole to the other side of the wall, a hole to the real world outside his prison, he is set free.

The man who steps out of that prison is nothing like the man who walked in it 15 years earlier. He is a monster, as he calls himself, consumed by rage, and he will stop at nothing in his quest for revenge. But what if his torture was nothing but the result of a just as insatiable and justifiable thirst for retribution? In a twisted turn of fate – or maybe another calculated step in a diabolical scheme of revenge – Dae-su meets Mido, and like it happens in films these two ruined, lonely people, find comfort in each other. But if he wants to save her life and get his revenge, Dae-su has to find the reason for his imprisonment in 5 days.

I won’t spoil the movie for you by telling you what happens next, but let me just say that this revenge drama is as ruthless as it is funny. The cinematography is so beautiful it is breathtaking and the story is no doubt twisted to the point of being borderline nauseating, but somehow manages to make us smile with its cutting playfulness. The film won a number of awards, among which the Grand Prix at Cannes Film Festival 2004, and a remake was made by Spike Lee in 2013 – needless to say, you should watch the original. It’s part of Chan-wook’s The Vengeance Trilogy, but it is by far the best among the three films comprising it. The last scene will most likely leave you feeling chilled and hollow, but as Dae-su keeps asking in a mantra that sounds very much like a plea: “Even though I’m no better than a beast, don’t I have the right to live?”


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