Oldboy offers a thrilling investigation of Korean cinema
Published: Friday, March 22, 2013
Updated: Friday, March 22, 2013 00:03
Within the first few minutes of watching the Korean thriller Oldboy (2003), it will seem like the English subtitles have been mistranslated. How else could you explain the fact that within a few scenes of the opening, the fairy-wing-clad protagonist Oh Dae-su is arrested, bailed out, kidnapped, framed for murder and finally detained for 15 years without the slightest transcribed clue as to why? The narrative soon informs us, however, that this is not a translation error: These strange events are the mysteries that drive this intricate and mystery-filled narrative.
Driven by a desire to find the identity of his captors, Oh Dae-su eats at every dumpling restaurant in Seoul in search of the familiar tastes of his everyday meal in captivity. Along this culinary detective journey, he finds companionship in Mi-do, a sushi chef who helped him recover after his unexpected release. The path toward enacting revenge is nonlinear, and Oh Dae-su learns the reasons behind his capture stem all the way back to his childhood.
Director Chan-wook Park (Lady Vengeance) won the Grand Prix jury award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival for this second installment in his trilogy focused on revenge. While the plot dabbles in love, sensuality and suspense, it is the idea of vengeance that connects the otherwise disparate elements of the diegesis. Although it is not truly a plot twist, the revelation about the origins of this system of revenge is both satisfying and surprising, even if the complete explanation is a little tenuous.
Oldboy is an exciting entry point into the world of Korean cinema, in that it constantly reminds the viewer that it is not a product of Hollywood. It is far more subtle, daring and violent. The term sadistic is even appropriate on multiple occasions; a certain extraction scene will confirm all early childhood suspicions that people who examine teeth are inherently scary and evil. Although this mystery thriller requires the viewer to witness extreme levels of pain, the violence furthers Park’s goal to instill the film with tragic pathos.
Talks of an American remake of Oldboy have been around since 2008, when rumors began circulating about Steven Spielberg (E.T.) directing the film with Will Smith (Men in Black) in the leading role. However, the project was apparently abandoned shortly thereafter and remained dormant until director Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing) revived it in 2011. Now, Lee has officially confirmed the American remake with a release date of Oct. 11, 2013. The film is set to star Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men) as the leading actor. As the buildup to this new release grows, critics and fans alike have started revisiting the now-classic original.
Regardless of this newfound hype, Oldboy is an excellent film in its own right and it offers a level of visceral drama that is rarely found within Netflix’s streaming library. Even for those who find foreign films disconcerting, Oldboy is an excellent introduction to international cinema. Despite the strangeness, confusion and violence, it is hard to look away.