BORDERLINE WEIRD: OLDBOY (2003)

fourandahalfstar

DIRECTED BY

FEATURINGMin-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hye-jeong Kang

PLOT:  A drunk Dae-su Oh is seized off the streets and imprisoned for years in a private

Still from Oldboy (2003)

apartment without any explanation; when he is just as mysteriously released, his former captor toys with him, giving him clues to help Dae-su track him down and, more importantly, discover why he was imprisoned in the first place.

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINEOldboy is certainly extreme, certainly stylized, certainly cultish, but it may be a stretch to call it “weird.”  What gives it some weird cred is the high implausibility of the fabulous plot, which is more concerned with intriguing us through its psychological truth than its believability.  Watching Oldboy leads to the same punched-in-the-psychic-gut feeling as the best weird movies do.  It’s that effect that keeps it on the borderline.

COMMENTSOldboy spins its improbable yarn with stylized realism.  There are a few weirdish digressions: when a stir-crazy Dae-su hallucinates that ants are crawling under his skin (an ant also briefly appears to Mi-do in a mirror image phantasm); a scene where, instead of showing the avenger graphically bashing in his adversary’s head, the director freezes frame and draws a dotted line on the screen from Dae-su’s claw hammer to the villain’s noggin; and a brilliantly impossible kung fu battle in a narrow corridor that seems imported from a completely different movie.  Part of what makes this Chan-wook’s most successful work is that neither these cinematic stylistic touches, nor the improbably convoluted plot, cause our brows to permanently freeze in a skeptical furrow, or totally overwhelm the sense that this fantastic story could have happened essentially the way he tells it.  There are maybe a dozen points in the film where if Dae-su chooses to do follow path X rather than path Y, the entire plot collapses; there are another half-dozen plot contrivances that could only be accomplished by a cartoon supervillain with unlimited resources.  But our logical objections never rise to the fore while we’re watching the film.  Oldboy seems “real” because the actors are able to convey an emotional realism, because Chan-wook creates legitimate suspense that makes us want to believe so we’re fully invested when we discover what happens next, and because, like a Shakespearean tragedy, the story rings psychologically true.  On one level, Oldboy is a simple and elegant dramatization of the self-annihilating power of revenge, inflicted with unflinching emotional brutality on the poor hero. What gives the film extra intensity is that we sense it’s not the villain, but the dread hand of Fate manipulating and battering Dae-su.  The force that torments him is too relentless and omnipotent to be human, to cruel and senseless to be karma.

Every successful foreign film is the subject of a Hollywood remake rumor, and Oldboy is no exception.  What is just as bizarre as Oldboy‘s plot contrivances are the names linked to the remake (actually an adaptation of the same source material, to avoid quibbles): Steven Speilberg and Will Smith.  If even Hollywood’s most daring talent would inevitably chicken out and make Oldboy pointless by sanitizing its unflinching psychic brutality, what will these two squeaky-clean icons of normality do to it?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“At once real and completely unreal, familiar and deeply strange, violent and comically absurd… It says something when you come out of a film as weird and fantastical as ‘Oldboy’ and feel that you’ve experienced something truly authentic. I just don’t know what. I can’t think of anything to compare it to.”–Carina Chocano, Los Angeles Times (contemporary)

2 thoughts on “BORDERLINE WEIRD: OLDBOY (2003)”

  1. I just re-watched this again and liked even more the second time around. I don’t think it probably has what it takes to make the final cut for The List, but it is an exceptionally well-executed film. I’m just curious if anyone could recommend Chan-wook Park’s other 2 films in his “Vengeance Trilogy”…Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance or Sympathy for Lady Vengeance? I have my own personal list of movies I need to finally get around to seeing (it’s long)…are these 2 worth my time?

    1. I have a capsule of Lady Vengeance here. Long story short, it’s a worthwhile watch but has nowhere near the impact of Oldboy (big surprise). It’s a little more stylized than the previous “vengeance” films, but still not quite heavy enough to qualify as “list-worthy” weird, in my opinion. I suspect Kat Doherty may disagree with me, though, since she chose Lady Vengeance for her avatar.

      I haven’t seen Mr. Vengeance, but anyone who has should chime in.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *