By Kim Hollis
March 24, 2005
The winner of the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, Chan-wook Park's Old Boy hits North American theaters starting this weekend, courtesy of Tartan Films.
It is almost certainly best to go into this film with as few expectations as possible, though a bare bones knowledge of the plot line doesn't hurt anything. The movie starts out on a surreal and strange note, as we meet Dae-su. Drunk and belligerent in a police station, it's made clear from the outset that his character is less than savory. Nonetheless, Old Boy is Dae-su's story, and he is such an engaging personality that it's impossible not to be consistently fascinated by the events unfolding onscreen.
Soon after being bailed out of jail, Dae-su is kidnapped and taken away to a small room where he is kept prisoner for reasons unknown. Although he is uncertain at first how much time has passed, before long he is passing the years (yes, years) by tattooing his arm with a new mark at each anniversary. The television that sits before him shows the world events that have taken place during his lost time. He even sees that his wife has been murdered, and he is the prime suspect. As he waits, he also whittles away the hours by carving an escape route through his wall. Before he can finish at the 15-year mark, though, he is unexpectedly and inexplicably released. And all of this action takes place in the first 20 minutes of the film.
Once Dae-su is out of his strange prison, his focus naturally becomes revenge against the people who had him placed there. As he rattles off a list of potential perpetrators who might have had reason for wanting to hurt him, it becomes even more apparent that Dae-su is a man with a checkered and dark past. Part of Old Boy's intrigue comes from the fact that we suspect the protagonist is a badass, but we're just not quite sure how or why he is that way.
The final hour and 40 minutes of the film are spent unraveling the mystery behind why Dae-su was imprisoned, who did it, and the means our hero takes to exact his retribution. However, the movie is far more involved than a simple tale of angry vengeance.
At the beginning of the film, the director's influences become readily apparent. Taking elements from older noir classics, Hitchcockian masterpieces, and neo-punk Asian drama, Old Boy sets itself apart as an intensely intelligent and deeply ambitious outing. Some of the hyper-realistic violence and the ultimately dark subject matter will prove uncomfortable for many audience members, but for those well-versed in the tragedies of Shakespeare, the dialogue and storyline will have a ring of familiarity.
The film primarily relies on the performance of Min-sik Choi as Dae-su, and he indeed gives one of the finest performances I have seen in some time. Alternately angry, violent, vulnerable and even sexy, his range is remarkable and the character is extraordinarily memorable. In addition to his abilities as a performer, Choi is also an impressive fighter. Although he's not doing anything fancy in this film - he's a man who uses his fists and any weapon he can get his hands on to make a point - his fight scenes are believable and leave a strong impression.
Along with Choi, Ji-tae Yu also has a crucial role as the mysterious and enigmatic Woo-jin. To reveal much about this character would truly be to spoil the plot of the film, but suffice it to say that he is notable in a cast that is generally quite strong.
Setting off the atmosphere perfectly is a fantastic score from Yeong-wook Jo. Also interspersed in the film at important moments are snippets from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, specifically the "Winter" movement. The music offsets the action that is taking place onscreen, and it does so as a study of contrasts.
In the end, although the movie is certainly intentionally off-putting and in-your-face, it leaves a lasting impact on the emotions. I'm certain I'll be pondering the movie's ideas for some time, and while it shouldn't be compellingly rewatchable, I find myself thinking that I'll probably be looking to view it again in the very near future. I highly recommend Old Boy for those who like smart cinema that is unafraid to take heavy risks.