Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy may frequently shock and disgust you, but you’ll find yourself unable to look away from the excellent filmmaking on display.
Take a moment and just think about the best third acts you’ve ever seen in a film. Whatever you’ve conjured up in your mind, I promise none of them quite compare to the climax of Oldboy. It’s shocking and disgusting, and thinking about that final twist for too long may be enough to put you off your dinner, but it’s also so expertly done. The director, Park Chan-wook, lays out all of the pieces of the puzzle, allowing you to put it all together just before it’s officially revealed. This results in a few moments where you’re pretty sure you know what’s going on, but you just desperately want it to not be the case. That sense of overwhelming shock and dread is what Oldboy does so well, and why, 20 years after its release, I’d still consider it to be one of the best neo-noir thrillers of all time.
Oldboy follows alcoholic businessman Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), who, after being held prisoner in a mysterious building for reasons he doesn’t know for 15 years, suddenly finds himself released back into the world. Determined to figure out why he was imprisoned and who was behind it, Dae-su sets out on a quest for vengeance, slowly falling in love with a young sushi chef named Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung) along the way. Both of the leads are superb in the film, with Choi Min-sik in particular managing to capture both the tragedy and insanity of his character. Oldboy never shies away from the absurd, and Min-sik does a brilliant job leaning into those elements whilst never forgetting the tragic backstory that drives Dae-su, the lost family that he constantly torments himself over.
One area where Oldboy really shines for me is in its various action scenes. Whilst modern-day action seems to prioritise elegance and craft, Oldboy instead leans into the chaos, into the darker, more violent side of action. One scene in particular that’s been seared into my memory is the now iconic corridor fight scene, a 4 minute continuous take that sees Dae-su, armed with a hammer and his own fists, pitted up against an entire army of goons. There’s nothing graceful about it, it’s just violence reduced to its simplest form, and it’s exhilarating to watch. Every punch from Dae-su sounds like it’s hurting him just as much as his opponent, and by the end of it, you’re just shocked he’s still standing. It’s not pleasant to watch, but you simply can’t turn away, and that might just be the best way to summarise Oldboy.
Now, as much as I do love Oldboy, it is worth saying that I think the plot might just be a tad hard to follow. It’s a demanding, unrelenting experience that frequently refuses to take the easy way out, and that results in quite a few moments where it feels like the viewer needs to play catch up to get back onto the film’s wavelength. It’s hardly a deal-breaker, as even if you start to find yourself getting overwhelmed by everything going on, the craft on display will easily draw you back in. Everything about how it looks and how it moves is so distinctly unique, and makes seeing the restored and remastered version of the film that’s being released for its 20th anniversary even more worth it.
Despite Hollywood’s failed attempt to remake it for American audiences, 20 years on we can truly see that there’s quite simply nothing else like Oldboy. Watching it for the first time is an experience that you’ll honestly never forget. I imagine that you could ask anyone who’s seen it about that final twist and they’d have a whole soliloquy prepared detailing what went through their mind in that exact second, it’s that impactful and shocking. Everything from the performances to the screenplay to the one-of-a-kind action scenes all come together to create a product that manages to feel so distinctly macabre. It’s hardly a pleasant watch, but from the second it starts to those last, haunting moments, you’ll find yourself simply unable to look away.
A new 4k restoration of Oldboy will be released theatrically on August 16, 2023 to celebrate the film’s 20th anniversary. Read our article on the theme of revenge in Park chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy!