Old Boy (올드보이) has the double-edged distinction of being most international audience’s first introduction to Korean cinema, and ironically, their only frame of reference. Thus any film viewed after such an inauguration is compared with Park Chan-wook’s (박찬욱) seminal work regardless of genre, which is clearly an injustice to all involved. And yet, it is difficult to completely judge those who make the comparison, as Old Boy is simply phenomenal.
As the extremely drunk Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik (최민식) is arrested one night in 1988, he little realises that his every action is being watched. Released from the police station and apologising for missing his daughter’s birthday, Dae-su is suddenly snatched from the street and wakes up in an apartment – where he will spend the next fifteen years in captivity. Without warning, Dae-su is released from his incarceration and must discover who imprisoned him, and more importantly, why. He is joined on his quest for revenge by Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong (강혜정), a sushi waitress who takes pity on his plight. In following the trail of clues Dae-su finds his tormentor Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae (유지태) but the burning desire for answers stays his hand. As the mystery unravels, Dae-su is confronted by an awful truth, that will lead to a shocking final confrontation with his nemesis.
The centerpiece of Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy (preceded by Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것) and followed by Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (친절한 금자씨), Old Boy stands out as one of the most innovative and technically proficient thrillers of all time. If it was ever in doubt before, Old Boy cemented Park Chan-wook’s status as an auteur due to his incredible vision and flair for violent and macabre subject matter. His technical prowess appears effortless. Initially the hand-held documentary-esque drunken antics in a police station add realism as well as Dae-su’s appalling character traits. Yet this is seamlessly sutured with conventions ascribed to fantasy, thriller and action as Dae-su evolves during the course of the film. Shots, such as Dae-su emerging from a suitcase in a field – later revealed as a roof – continually astonish and excite. Tracking shots of action sequences are equally enthralling as Dae-su takes on an entire gang in the narrow confines of a corridor. The level of creative confidence also extends into the mise-en-scene, particularly in regards to colour and patterns. The striking reds hint at the danger to come, while the eerie purples (accompanied by the maze-like pattern formed of triangles) are the calling cards of the mastermind behind the events.
Praise must also be generously given to the narrative, co-written by Park Chan-wook and Hwang Jo-yoon. The central concept is reminiscent of The Prisoner (1967-68), yet from there the ideas generated are original, shocking and downright bizarre. Yet fundamentally, the emotional core of each protagonist is placed front and center giving exceptional substance to the stylised visuals. Each character is incredibly compelling, neither good nor bad but an amalgamation of a variety of neuroses. In presenting such complex character studies to the screen, all the actors deserve recognition. Chief among them is Choi Min-sik who gives a towering performance as Dae-su. His physical transformation is startling, not only in terms of his musculature but also his tired and dishevelled face that conveys the seriousness of his situation without uttering a word. His erratic behaviour is entrancing and performed with real conviction, from his television style speech patterns, his difficulty in entering the modern world and the frustration of unlocking memories within himself. Similarly Yoo Ji-tae is wonderfully sadistic as the antagonist of the film. Woo-jin’s arrogance and sheer audacity radiates with every movement, yet amazingly is far from villainous due to the incredible depth of character. His own torment, and the unbelievable lengths he goes to in displacing them, are profound and convincing despite the extremities that occur.
Old Boy is a monumental achievement not only for Korean cinema, but also in terms of international recognition. It’s little wonder why audiences use it as the frame of reference in comparing other films from Korea despite the unfairness of such comparisons. The innovative narrative and technical prowess, as well as the exemplary performances, serve to make Old Boy a timeless classic and an absolute must-see.