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Oldboy (South Korea)


oldboy poster

According to everyone’s trusted source, Wikipedia, a cult film (or classic) is a film that has acquired a significant, devoted following often years or decades after the film’s initial release. Oldboy was released in 2003 and has since grown in legend and reputation. The cult fervor over this Korean revenge drama grew to the point that the U.S. simply had to remake it. The update, directed by Spike Lee and starring Josh Brolin, looks to retain some of the intensity, but the question is whether or not the content will make the cultural transition.

Grade:

B-

Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) is introduced as a drunkard who cannot get his act together. Quickly, however, he is mysteriously imprisoned in a quasi-hotel room for fifteen years. During this time, he is psychologically manipulated, drugged, and isolated from the world outside apart from a television, on which he learns of his framing for his wife’s murder. Upon release, Dae-su has revenge on his mind and nothing else.

Oldboy is really split into three, semi-exclusive parts. The first is the intriguing captivity, brilliantly portrayed and narrated by Choi. It’s a curious situation and one that no one should ever endure. I actually wish more of this had been shown since Choi deftly portrays a man’s descent into madness.

oldboy 1

The second act, which is also the most underwhelming, is Dae-su’s search for his captor and answers as to why fifteen years of his life were wasted. In this section we see Dae-su’s acclimation to the outside world with lights, noises and females…lots of them. For a semi-womanizer, being alone for fifteen years takes its toll, so he welcomes contact from the enchanting Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang). This expository middle act never gains enough steam to keep you fully engaged, however. Instead of joining in the investigation, you’re left waiting for the reveal.

The third act, which lasts a half hour or so and consists of between three and five plausible ending points, brings a heavy climax that gut-checks you and purposefully leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Subtle hints from the middle act give you an inkling of the ending, but you are too busy thinking, “there’s no way they’d do that…would they?”

oldboy 2

Moving forward, I’m incredibly curious how closely Lee will adhere to the source material. There is obviously a cultural divide. The reason for Dae-su’s captivity is, frankly, somewhat mundane. This man’s life is absolutely, irrevocably destroyed for something that most people would forget. Oldboy brings up the idea of a grain of sand and a stone sinking despite their differences, which sheds light on a concept similar to one man’s trash is another man’s treasure but in a much darker sense.

The weak foundation on which Oldboy is built discredits the film in many ways because you are left thinking, “That’s it?” It goes to incredibly dark places—cultural differences be damned—and stays there while bringing up an array of moral quandaries. Many unwitting people will be shocked and horrified if the American version retains the same core concepts, but the cult of Oldboy will be sickeningly delighted.

As for the Korean version, I finished the film feeling two things: like I needed a hug and a shower and underwhelmed. Much of the insanity and mental anguish seems highly unnecessary and could have easily been avoided with even a modicum of mental fortitude. Expectations and hype often are the quickest way to ruin a film, and I think that occurred here.

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  1. I haven’t actually watched this in years, but it’s one of the movies that got me into Asian cinema. It can’t be perfect, but it’ll always be on my must-watch list.

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