Netflix Picks: Oldboy


In 2003, Park Chan-wook released Oldboy, his adaptation of the comic of the same name by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi. It takes a lot for a movie to make my skin crawl, especially outside of the horror genre. But Park's tale of revenge deploys Edgar Allen Poe-grade spite and intrigue with style to spare.

Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is a reckless man and a poor planner. When the movie begins, he's in the drunk-tank on his daughter's fourth birthday. His friend, No Joo-hwan (Ji Dae-han) bails him out, but within two minutes, Oh disappears. With no explanation, Oh wakes up to find himself locked in a small room that would belong in any Motel 6 in the country.

After fifteen years stuck in that room, Oh is released on top of a building, again with no explanation. He goes on a rampage looking for the person or people who imprisoned him, eventually teaming up with Joo-hwan, who now runs an internet cafe, and a young sushi waitress named Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong). But he keeps getting taunting phone calls from the stranger who kidnapped him, a man named Lee Woo-jin (Yu Ji-tae). He's being watched.

Leaving a trail of beaten bodies in his wake, Oh manages to find Lee. But in lieu of immediate revenge, Lee offers a deal: If Oh can figure out who Lee is and why he imprisoned him, Lee will shoot himself. Should Oh fail, Mi-do will be killed. Oh and Mi-do are starting to fall for each other by this point, so Oh takes the deal.

The big reveal is sickening and may make the viewer wish Oh had beaten fifteen years worth of his captor's ass and left closure to rot. But the irony of what actually happens is perfect. It brings to mind The Cask of Amontillado or “Scott Tenorman Must Die.”

For all that he suffers, Oh is not a heroic protagonist. Right off, he says that his name means “getting through one day at a time.” He's directionless and impulsive; the only thing that changed about him in fifteen years is his drive for revenge. As for Lee, he's a spot-on villain maniacally dedicated to his plan. And though Lee is reprehensible for his ruthlessness, he's not without sympathy.

Choi is a world-class dramatic actor whose name belongs alongside Gary Oldman and Daniel Day-Lewis. His performance as Oh Dae-su is excellent, and his range is huge. Whether he's drunk, vengeful or haunted, Choi sells it and makes it all feel like the same guy. No wonder he won Best Actor awards from the Asia Pacific Film Festival, the Blue Dragon Film Awards, the Director's Cut Awards, the Grand Bell Awards and the Korean Film Awards. Also of note, Yoo's performance as Lee is solid and unsettling. And Kang makes Mi-do feel genuine and memorable – she won Best Supporting Actress at the Blue Dragon Film Awards for the role.

The film as a whole is gorgeously crafted. One of the first scenes has a beautiful pan around the payphone No is using, slowly revealing that Oh has vanished, and the clocks and calendars used in scene transitions add style without looking gaudy. In a scene at Oh's old school, the present and flashback are combined so Oh can seamlessly chase his younger self (Oh Tae-kyung) around through a memory.

But the piece de resistance, shot-wise, is a three-and-a-half-minute single-shot fight scene staged in the hallway of the building where Oh was imprisoned. It's long and brutal, but it's beautiful. There are some killer one-shot fight scenes out there – episode two of Netflix's Daredevil and The Raid: Redemption come to mind — but Oldboy's is one of the best.

There was an American remake of the film in 2013, but director Spike Lee and star Josh Brolin spoke poorly of the editing decisions, and the theatrical cut was critically panned. I'm saving my judgement on that one for the inevitable director's cut.

But the original Korean film is a gem. It's a gripping, intelligent film with beautiful production decisions and great acting. If you can stomach the rough parts, it's worth it.

Congratulations, you're one movie closer to justifying that $8.99 a month.

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