Oldboy (2003) - This film has been on my "I need to watch it" list for quite a long time, having heard so many wonderful, fawning, excited and opinions of wonderment about this film that it seemed for sure when the viewing finally happened only disappointment could follow. On IMDB this film has a 8.4 user rating so to say that it has an enthusiastic following is an understatement. So when I decided to pop it in last night I was a bit weary. I started watching the film and the English dubbing was on and it was so bad that changing to Korean with English subtitles was necessary just to begin watching. Once into the film I was amazed that this film is as good as people have been bragging about. It is an amazingly twisted story that not only is well set up and filmed but also has a dynamic that raises it above other films.
Going in this film seems like one thing but by the end has transformed into something completely different. It has a unique structure where the viewer is set up to have a set of beliefs about the main character. Set up to be the unsympathetic character Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) is a bit of a shitty person, a drunk and an absentee father. We meet him in a police station after being picked up for public intoxication abusive and his behavior does not immediately make him endearing. When he is bailed out by his friend No Joo-hwan (Dae-han Ji) he is an ass. While making a drunken phone call to his daughter, No Joo-hwan takes the receiver and when he turns around his drunk friend is missing. Next we get a series of scenes that make him the sympathetic character.
Dae-su Oh has been abducted and he is next seen in a cell begging for his release. We through a sequence of scenes watch as he is kept captive for 15 years. Through cycles of grief in his captivity, to the insanity that comes with isolation to learning his wife has been murdered he is a lost soul without answers to why this is happening to him. A television his only eye into the world outside he loses his mind. His suicide attempts make you feel for his suffering, his physical training we think he only lives to get revenge on those who did this to him, his writing in his journal about all the people he wronged does nothing to get any answers to who but shows that he is a man who learns what a bad person he is. Escape is impossible and viewers have also the knowledge that his mind is also being manipulated through hypnosis. He is regularly gassed and cared for so he is alive but captive and trained to a schedule. The one thing he does that fight this control is trying to tunnel out of his cell through a hole in the wall behind his bed. When at last he removes one brick from the outer wall of his prison, enough to stick his hand out and feel rain for the first time in 15 years, the audience expectations are he is getting close to escape. He goes to sleep as the gas fills his room this time with a smile on his face. So when he wakes on a rooftop in a new suit with all his writing and personal items intact we are all on board with him being sympathetic character. We are also surprised since the buildup was all about him finally having a chance to escape so are expectations as viewers have to re-adjust.
The story as it unfolds is Dae-su attempting to find out who it was that imprisoned him and why. We are into his story at this point and figure all that is to come is about his revenge for his incarceration. Writer Garon Tsuchiya does an excellent job at revealing the the details across the span of the film. One piece at a time small clues from his captivity are deciphered and he learns what he needs to know. Along the way we see him find love again with a much younger women, Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang) a chef who surprisingly finds him attractive. When he finally finds out who and why and the villain (?) of the film is revealed Woo-jin Lee (Ji-tae Yu) we the audience realize that maybe we may have been cheering for the wrong person in this film. While leading us to feel that this is a film about Dae-su's vengeance we learn really this is a film about Woo-jin's revenge. The twists and turns in the final third of this film are mind boggling, after the first viewing you can see the foreshadowing in the early part of the film but on the virgin viewing it is a wonderful set of revelations. This dichotomy of characters and the cruel turns and surprising revelations make the first viewing of this film a singular wonder.
The tatters of the end of this story are so sad, so profoundly disturbing that this viewer was left in awe at Dae-su's final decisions. Again becoming somewhat sympathetic because of the cruel event that have occurred he makes a decision which viewers can debate for hours after viewing this film. It is not just that though, the decisions of Woo-jin after the loss of his beloved sister Lee Soo-ah are amazing. It is his vengeance against Dae-su that is the driving force of this film. It is he that was wronged and left empty that drive the events of the film. It is such a refreshing story in that in it we get established on one person as the victim of events but then realize that we don't know shit. Ultimately we can still sypathize with Dae-su but you have to love that the story challenges the viewer to understand that his is not guilt free. Refusing to spoil any of this film is important so that all of you go watch this film as it is highly recommended by this blog.