This second installment of Park Chan Wook’s “Vengeance Trilogy” is the film that turned the global interest toward Korean cinema.
Based on the homonymous Japanese manga, the film focuses on Dae-su, a businessman who is arrested for drunkenness, missing his daughter’s fourth birthday. The same night, and for no apparent reason, he is abducted and forced to live in the same room for 15 years. When he is unexpectedly released, he is set on exacting revenge, although the sole evidence in his possession is the fact that he must accomplish this revenge in five days. A girl he meets at a sushi restaurant, where she works as a chef, decides to help him, once more with no apparent reason.
Although “Oldboy” has revenge as its central theme, Park directs a movie with the actual goal of presenting another dimension, one that leads to repentance. The humiliation and ensuing catharsis are the primary concepts, and revenge, which creates chain reactions of growing hatred, is solely an element of the set, with the focus being on vengeance not as an act, but the reasons that lead to it and its consequences.
Choi Min-sik is sublime in Dae-su, giving a magnificent performance and artfully presenting a plethora of sentiments that vary from ecstasy to paranoia, while retaining a style that makes him seem, at most times, as a caricature. Yoo Ji-tae is also great as the impersonation of evil and Kang Hye-du quite functional as the girl who falls in love with Dae-su. Kim Byeong-ok as Mr Han is a nice addition to the film, in cult fashion.
Technically the film features a number of truly memorable scenes, with the one with the fight in the corridor being one of the most elaborate action scenes ever to appear on cinema. The sequence was executed to perfection, but it took 17 takes in three days to achieve the result Park wanted, and is actually one continuous take. There was no editing whatsoever, except for the knife in Dae-su’s back that was computer generated. As the scene progresses sideways with the camera following, the geometry of it is astonishing and quite reminiscent of old school beat-em-up games, like “Final Fight” and “Double Dragon”, a sense that is heightened by the fact that the protagonist fights alone against scores of enemies. Park, however, has stated that the effect was unintentional. Furthermore, the one in the end, where the revelation of the actual facts occurs, is the equivalent of a Greek tragedy on cinema, a sequence cruel in so many levels.
Add to that Park’s preposterous sense of humor and distinct irony, as portrayed in the concept of an enterprise that assists people who want someone kidnapped, the elaborate combination of music and image, and some grotesqueness, as in the scene where Dae-su eats an octopus alive (which is an actual scene, not computer generated) and you have a true cinematic masterpiece, one of the best films of the 21st century.