Review: Oldboy (2003)


Spoiler warning! This review discusses revealing themes and elements of the movie’s plot.

A man is locked in a prison that looks like a dingy motel room for fifteen years. He is never given an explanation for this cruel act. After he is suddenly released one day, he sets out to track down his captors and take revenge on them.

This is the setup for Oldboy, made by the Korean director Park Chan-wook, but despite how it sounds the film is more than just a stylish and shocking Asian revenge flick. In recent years, South Korean cinema has become internationally admired, while at the same time know for instances of extreme violence and sadomasochism. (For an example of this, look no further than Park’s 2009 film, Thirst, a bizarre take on the vampire story.) Disturbing subject matter is not what defines Oldboy though.

At the heart of the film lies a classical tragedy. The gore, the incest, and the devastating emotions are all parts of the genre. (If you don’t believe me, remember that Oedipus stabs his own eyes when he discovers he has married his mother.) The climax of Oldboy—which boasts one of the most astonishing and effective twists of the past decade—is both surprising and sickening, but the visceral shock we feel at the extreme violence and revelation of taboo breaking is not what affects us most. The greatest effect of the film is how strongly the story pulls our emotions—almost to breaking point. Oldboy achieves a catharsis worthy of Sophocles or Shakespeare. Park’s superb technique (famously exemplified in the side-scrolling hallway fight scene, accomplished in a single long shot) and the clever screenplay are certainly impressive, but the emotional depth is what makes Oldboy a great film.

This film is most definitely not for everyone. My wife was appalled and may still regret watching it with me. Make no mistake: this is a very heavy, very dark movie, so go into it aware of that. Admirably, though, Oldboy is never gratuitously disturbing. The dark subject matter has a purpose.

9 out of 10

Oldboy (South Korea, 2003)

Directed by Park Chan-wook; screenplay by Hwang Jo-yun, Lim Chun-hyeong, Lim Joon-hyung, and Park Chan-wook; starring Choi Min-sik, Yu Ji-tae, and Kang Hye-jeong.