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Review Written by: Joe Earp
Film: A
What the MPAA Rating should be: R (for violence)

Directed by: Chan-wook Park
Written by: Chan-wook Park, Jo-yun Hwang, Chun-hyeong Lim and Joon-hyung Lim
Based on the comic by: Nobuaki Minegishi
Produced by: Seung-yong Lim
Starring: Min-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hye-jeong Kang, Dae-han Ji, Dal-su Oh, Byeong-ok Kim
Studio: Egg Films

Oldboy is an action movie for people who don't like action movies. A compelling and intelligent study of masculinity, which justifiably won Korean director Chan-Wook Park the Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes in 2004. The film's storyline is deceptively simple: a man, Oh-Dae Su, is imprisoned for fifteen years without reason, or so it seems. On his relaease he is given five days to discover the reason behind his incarceration. However this is only the beginning of a tale that slowly builds up to a tragic conclusion.

The film is driven by Oh-Dae Su's quest for the truth. However along the way, he becomes infatuated with a young girl he meets at a local sushi restaurant. Although from the beginning we can sense that this is a story that will not end well, we are still drawn into this fictional world from almost the very first shot. The depravity of the central characters is often quite hard to bear: there are several scenes of mutilation and most famously a major set-piece where a live octopus is devoured. However if you can hang in there for long enough, you will also be rewarded with a beautiful yet upsetting tale of love gone wrong and all-consuming revenge. But like all good films Oldboy leaves us thinking after the closing credits have rolled. We are left questioning Oh-Dae Su's motives for revenge. Are they justified? Is he satisfied? Or more importantly, has it all been for naught?

The movie doesn't give us easy answers. At its core Oldboy is a film about masculinity gone wrong. Oh-Dae Su's character is reminiscent of the central protagonist in Peckinpah's classic Straw Dogs. He becomes increasingly violent as the film unravels. His imprisonment changes him, causing him to embrace his dark, masculine side. Violence becomes a facet of his personality to the point where the audience begins to question how far he will take his journey of revenge. This theme of masculinity is developed subtly throughout the film. For example, early on in the piece, director Chan-Wook Park uses a simple jump cut to demonstrate his character's sudden embrace of violence. In one scene we see Oh-Dae Su's vengeful side as he dangles a helpless man off the edge of a building. Then, without warning, we cut to our central persona fifteen years earlier: a drunken slob who looks completely harmless nevertheless. This simple edit demonstrates how quickly a man can become violent, simply by accepting his own masculinity.

Another major set-piece of the film is a one-take fight sequence that pits Oh-Dae Su against a dozen or more heavily armed goons. Unlike the highly-choreographed battle scenes in most mainstream action movies, this sequence does not glamorize the violence at all. In fact the whole scene feels vaguely pathetic: by the end of the sequence all the men have been incapacited and yet still they do not give up. They thrash around on the floor, desperately trying to lash out against something, anything. As an interesting side-note, this scene was nominated for an Academy Award for its use of special effects; a nomination that was later withdrawn when it was discovered that the sequence was filled on the fly in a single take and did not employ CGI at all.

The film's direction is first-rate and the performances are faultless. We feel real sympathy for the characters, mainly thanks to the wonderful work of the actors. The script is perfect, balancing scenes of intense violence with short bursts of tranquility and calm. This works very well when examining the contrasting themes of masculininty and femininity and manages to jolt the audience right out of their seats on a number of occasions. The violence is shocking not only in its intensity, but also when placed against scenes of humour or love. The music deserves a special mention. No film is complete without a perfect soundtrack and every note in Oldboy's score rings true. The music is emotional and powerful, adding a intensity to an already spellbinding film. One fight sequence is shot without digamous sound, with only a few simple chords filling the void of silence. This creates a unique cinematic experience, something unrivaled in contemporary cinema. Action scenes become more than action scenes: they feel almost spiritual.

The characters are wonderfully developed. As our 'hero' becomes more and more violent, 'the villain', once we understand his motives, seems almost more appealing to the audience. Not since Psycho's Norman Bates have we felt such a sense of sympathy for a character that could have been just a B-grade villain in any other film. Its hard to discuss the amazing denouement without giving away too much. However, the film's finale is shocking and cynical, with characters desperately trying to deny the truth even as the credits roll. One of the film's major strengths is that it never spells out its final denouement to the audience. We are left to interpret the character's actions all on our own, and it is this that makes the film truly exceptional.

An iconic and famous image from Oldboy.
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