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Film Review: Oldboy (2003) Is A Cinematic Masterpiece


I have had Oldboy on my must-watch list for literally years.

The only thing that stopped me from watching it was that its predecessor, Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, so wrecked me emotionally that I couldn’t bring myself to watch another film in his Vengeance Trilogy no matter how much I wanted to. Well, ten years after Oldboy‘s conception and one (reportedly) awful remake later, I finally gave in – only to get my emotions totally destroyed again. Yeah, I’m beginning to sense a pattern for me with this director’s movies.

Park’s Vengeance Trilogy, as you might have suspected, deals with the concept of revenge. The three films – Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance – are linked only by thematic elements, and are otherwise narratively separate from one another. Oldboy is the second film in that trilogy, and its story is among the most brilliantly fucked up plot lines I’ve ever had the honor to witness.

Because of the importance of the not knowing the big reveals and plot twists ahead of time, I’m going to be as spoiler-free (and thus, super vague) as possible, so bear with me. The cold opening to Oldboy is fantastic, throwing us right in the middle of the story as main character Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik) tells a man – who he’s holding off the edge of a building by his necktie – that he wants to tell the man, aka we the audience, his story. And oh, what a story it is: fifteen years ago, Oh Dae-Su was kidnapped and locked in a small hotel room, where he spent his days never knowing why. He has now been released from that prison, but he’s still not entirely free – not from the people who put him in that room, and not from his own desire for the truth.

Photo: Egg Films

The visuals and cinematography in Oldboy are especially memorable, particularly its long and beautifully choreographed fight scenes and unflinching approach to physical violence and emotional pain. The scene where Oh Dae-Su fights his way through a teeming mass of bodyguards is nothing short of awe-inspiring. It’s not all gore and mind games, though – Oldboy sprinkles in some dark, crass humor that, framed by all the ugliness happening around those moments, makes for some wonderfully uncomfortable laughs. (The infamous hammer scene, anyone?)

The movie speeds you along at a fast pace, eliminating the few issues I had with Mr. Vengeance; there were little to no pacing problems, because the mystery and action keeps you so engaged that you barely get a chance to breathe. And if you think you’ll be able to catch your breath at the end, think again. By the time the film’s shocking conclusion hits, the life will be sucker-punched out of your soul.

I’d be remiss not to mention the sublime acting of Choi Min-sik and Yoo Ji-tae, the antagonist of the film, both of whom conspired to carry Oldboy to new heights. The cat-and-mouse game they play for the first two acts of the film develops the mystery, but it’s the final act, where they meet face-to-face in a final showdown, that truly and brutally brings out their acting chops. Kudos to them both.

Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy is absolutely a chilling visual masterpiece of storytelling that will stick with you long, long after seeing it.