Oldboy review by The Grim Ringler

When they were handing out the Palm D'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival director Quentin Tarantino was adamant that the wrong film had won. The winner was, if you hadn't heard already, Farenheit 9/11, which I can't say I have seen, but having seen the film he thought should have won, well, he has a point. Old Boy is the film version of a kick the crotch, a movie so strangely beautiful and utterly shocking that the more you of the mystery at the heart of the plot that you learn, the less you want to know. Almost. The funny thing was that I had read about this film (and about one pretty shocking scene in particular) and even having had a friend who had bought, seen, and loved the film, I wasn't prepared at all for what I was going to see, which is to say a very dark thriller about love, revenge, and the true worth of both.

Oh Daesu is an ordinary man, the worst you can tell by the brief glimpse we get of him is that he likes to drink a little too much and has a big mouth when he does, but that's all we can tell. And all we will see of this Oh Daesu for just as Daesu is being released by the police into the custody of his friend he disappears without a trace. Gone. But not forgotten as the next day his wife turns up murdered and Daesu's blood is on the scene, which is impossible being that he is in prison. Or a prison. He awakens in a room made up like a hotel room but with a false view and a locked steel door. No one will speak to him and his only outside contact is with the television and with a man who brings his meals and slides them beneath the door. He is a prisoner without even knowing what he has done or who has captured him. Daesu alternates between rage, horror, fear, and loneliness, begging for some sort of answer. He gets none, though his captors do come during the night, as he is unconscious, to clean his room and cut his hair from time to time. Days become months, months become years, and the years march onward. He is at first self destructive and suicidal, but when he finds that his captors will not allow him to kill himself he decides to beat them at their own game, so he trains himself and his body to fight. And slowly, so very slowly, he begins to dig a way out with the steel chopsticks he is given with his meals. Just as Daesu is on the verge of reaching the outer world, his tunnel having lead him to falling rain, though he cannot tell how high up he is in his prison, he is released. He awakens, after one last bout of hypnosis, atop a building, in a suit, with the journals he has kept, and otherwise he is alone. When he first sees a human, a man about to kill himself, he cries from the joy. But after saving the man and telling him his story, he damns the man to his suicidal fate again by refusing to hear the man's tale, his compassion gone, replaced by the single-minded need to punish whomever did this to him. They have taken everything, his wife, his daughter, his friends, his life. He has nothing and they will pay. When released into the world, Daesu has nothing, no contacts, no friends, nothing, but all that changes when a stranger comes to him with a cell phone and a wallet and tells him not to ask questions. What he finds though, when the phone rings in that sushi restaurant he had been given the phone in front of, is that he has been entered into a game with no rules and one objective – find out who has done this to him. And so Daesu must face a murky past, make allies with a strange woman he finds at the sushi bar, and must contend with the vengeance of a man who imprisoned him for fifteen years, if he is to finally get his own revenge and find out why he has been singled out for this psychological torture. But as more of this mystery is revealed, even Daesu will be pushed to ask whether knowing who did this and why are worth what it will cost him.

This is not the movie I had thought it was. The film begins on a strange note, with a man seemingly holding another in a position of life and death, unsure which he shall choose for the man and then shows us our protagonist, Of Daesu, drunk and bafoonish and mere hours before his life shall change for the worse. I had expected a Korean gangster film, and I figured that sure, it'd be interesting and violent, and probably pretty to look at with a lot of CGI, as has become the fad in Asian films. Wow was I wrong. What I got was a very dark, very intricate thriller that is much smarter and grimmer than most American films dare to be. And with the final twist, it's as if a knife has been turned in your own back as we see the horror of the truth as Daesu faces it, our own stunned silence mimicking his. Old Boy is a brilliant film and is not at all like anything we have seen here in America. Mixing realistic violence with moments of beautiful fantasy that break through the cloud cover of the film, you are never sure quite what to expect. In Daesu we have a version of Plato's child in the cave as he re-enters a world he cannot fathom and comes from a place, morally, where he is a clean slate. He doesn't fear death, or pain, or violence, so revenge comes naturally to him. What scares Daesu is love, and learning to love again. And in our villain we have a character that is very wealthy, very bright, and very driven to punish a man he feels has wronged him. He will go to any and every length to destroy Daesu, breaking him down until he is almost nothing and then giving him enough o survive and push forward, just to start the cycle again. The film is a cat and mouse chase where neither knows which is playing which part. And what seems like a film about revenge – and is indeed about that – becomes a film about love, and the price we are willing to pay to save it, and the sacrifices we are willing to make to keep it intact.

The film is very well directed and there is a distinct and strong style here that not once intrudes into the story. The use of different filming techniques – POV shots, an action sequence that dollies along a corridor, Daesu fighting through some fifteen men, digital effects, the use of sound and music as themes and plot devices, and the use of time as a way to push the story forward. The acting is amazing, and shame on me for not knowing the actor's name, as he is wonderful. His Daesu is a ghost, walking in a world that is not his own, the only thing driving him being his need for vengeance; his need for answers. This changes only when he meets someone he thinks he can trust and then his need for love and to be loved overpowers his need for vengeance…almost. His horror though, and his awful acts of self-humiliation and supplication at the end of the film are utterly heart breaking and sadly reasonable seeing the situation he finds himself in at the end. The hell of it is we never get to hate the villain. He is a bastard, and we loathe him, but he is never a happy man in this film and seems to suffer as Daesu suffers, his own secrets slowly drowning him. And as I said before, this is one of the few stories I couldn't see coming, which surprised me at every turn and which took everything I thought it was and twisted them until those notions were a dagger aimed at my heart.

The version I saw of this film was from the region 3 DVD and was in 5.1 surround and sounded and looked wonderful on an all region player. The film made a big splash at Cannes and has only been getting more and more press so it's my hope that this will find its way to the states eventually, though I wouldn't hold your breath. This is the kind of film you NEED to seek out though. Few films can make me say they will shock you, will send chills up your spin, but I can and do say that about this film. While I don't think it's a perfect film – the structure can get confusing and the story is so dark at times that it's hard not to be a bit put off by it – this is as important a foreign film as I have seen in a while, since probably Hero, which was important more for its passion than for its story. SEE THIS MOVIE!


9 out of 10 Jackasses

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