The Greatest films of all time: 90.Oldboy (South Korea) (2003)


The film unconventional in many ways, opens with a future scene when the principal character, Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) holding a man by his tie off a high terrace on the verge of falling. With this introduction of the persona, next he is seen drunk in a waiting room beside a man and a young woman, asking the man if he flirted with his daughter. Then he goes to the corner of the waiting room to urinate but is stopped by two police officers. He keeps talking tipsy that today is his daughter’s fourth birthday and his name means “take things one day at the time”. Then he cries that why he cannot get through the day today. His hand is finally cuffed to the wall while sitting that calms him down a bit.


Finally a friend, No Joo-hwan (Ji Dae-han) releases him from the custody of the police. In the next scene Oh Dae-su is in a phone booth calling his daughter about her birthday and that he has a nice present for her. Then when Joo-hwan finishes talking to Oh Dae-su’s wife on the phone finds him missing. In the following scene after the title and credits of the film, we learn that Oh Dae-su has been kidnapped and placed in a cell. First only his face is shown out of a small opening on the bottom of the door of his cell, asking the reason of his captivity and how long he will be kept there as two months have already passed. In the next scene the place is shown to be a run down motel room.

From now on the film is a one man show and dialogue. He tells us that whenever a music is played there will be a sedative gas released in his room when people come in to clean the room, change his clothes and shave him. Through watching TV, that is his only company, entertainment, source of news and information of the outside world, a year later he finds out that his wife has been murdered with the suspicion of a personal motive reported by the police and him being the main suspect. Year after years is passed and Oh Dae-su, thinking hard of who could be his kidnapper(s) and makes a long list of those whom he might have offended. Through watching TV, he learns boxing and fighting and plans to take his revenge of those who kidnapped him. The major events of the outside world such as handing Hong Kong back to China, the inauguration of South Korean president and his visit of North Korea, the death of Princess Diana, the turn of the new millennium and the 9/11 fall of the New York City twin towers are all shown on TV through 15 years of his captivity. Finally after 15 long years, a young woman walks in his room, hypnotize him and telling him “imaging you open your eyes and you’ll be in field of green grass in the open air under the bright sun”.

In the next scene in a field of green grass, there is a suitcase that when opens up, Oh Dae-su gets out and sees himself in an exact place that the female hypnotist suggested. In a long shot the green grass field is revealed to be on the rooftop of a high building where weeds and grass have grown. After getting use to the eye-blinding bright sun after 15 years of living in a locked up room, he sees a young man with little dog on the roof top. He approaches the man, touches him to see if he is real, for not touching any live flesh all those years, but the man who has been apparently on the roof to jump and kill himself, is suddenly grabbed by his tie by Oh Dae-su when he tried to jump down. Then the two sit down and tell each other their own stories.

In the next scene Oh Dae-su is shown leaving the building when suddenly a body falls on a car roof parked by the building. Walking around being hungry, Oh Dae-su stops at the front of a restaurant staring at the food inside that a man approaches and hands him a cell phone and a wallet with cash inside, asking him not to ask why he’s given him all that as he does not know. Now having money, Oh Dae-su walks in a sushi bar to eat where his given cell phone rings and a voice on the other side talks to him. Oh Dae-su tries to guess who is the owner of the voice and why he locked him up for 15 years. But all his guessing names of people whom he thought might have done so to him were wrong and he is told by the voice that he is researcher who has been studying on his life and now it is the time for him to do his homework and here he hangs up.

At the sushi bar a beautiful young female chef tells him that he looks familiar, but he tells her that’s his first time in that restaurant. Oh Dae-su asks for a living piece of food that the girls passes him a big live octapus that he eats it alive like a cannibal. Then he passes out and in the next scene we see him sleeping in the female chef’s house, who when he wakes up introduces herself as Mido (Kan Hye-jung). While he had fainted out and in sleep, Mido had read his diary about his captivity and his hallucinating experience of seeing and feeling ants under his skin. She consoles him that when lonely like her it happens to have hallucinations and seeing ants as she has had such experiences and the film shows her riding alone in subway, where she hallucinates a giant ant.

Mido tries to help him to find and locate his daughter and they find that after the murder of his wife or her mother, she was adapted by a family and taken to Stockholm Sweden. But Oh Dae-su plans to find out and kill his kidnapper before looking for his daughter. One major clue in his mind is the taste of dumpling that he was being fed all the time over the 15 years of his captivity. He goes and eats in all the restaurants in the city to find the chef of the dumpling but fails until he smells the same dumpling from a food delivery boy when riding an elevator. He tortures the boy by pulling his teeth one by one with a hammer to get the name of the chef that he finally locates. He faces a large gang of men who go to fight him that after a long action-packed fight, he beats them all and leaves the place.

He finds his old friend Joo-hwan who helps him to find the mastermind kidnapper, Lee Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae) who they discover gradually to have been a classmate of their high school. Through further inquiry, Oh Dae-su finds out and recalls Woo-jin had an incest relationship with his sister, Lee Soo-ah (Yoon Jin-seo) back then and when he was a witness and spread the rumor leading to her suicide by jumping in a river. Slowly the motif behind the vengeance of Woo-jin to kidnap and lockup Oh Dae-su for 15 years is revealed. When Oh Dae-su at the end locates Woo-jin and goes to his penthouse for his revenge, he finds out that all these times even after his release, all his activities and conversations have been recorded through being through a bug placed in the sole of his shoes.

Before taking his revenge Woo-jin asks him to open up a gift box that when he opens there is a photo album that reveals Mido is in fact his own missing daughter who he had sex with. Here the incest relationship gets double edged on both hero and villain sides, though the protagonist of Oh Dae-su did not know and now has to go through another suffrage worse than his 15 years captivity. He starts begging and kneeling on Woo-jin’s heels not to reveal the truth to his daughter Mido, becoming his dog, licking his shoes and finally cutting his own tongue to prove that he will never talk about Woo-jin incest with his sister. At the end of the film, Woo-jin while leaving his penthouse, shoots and kills himself in the elevator and Oh Dae-su is seen outside in the snow sitting with the female hypnotist who hypnotizes him again to forget about his sin and that Mido is his own daughter. In the final scene Mido looking for Oh Dae-su arrives, hugs him and tells him that she loves him.                               

Adapted from a Japanese comic book of the same name, Oldboy is the second chapter of a vengeance trilogy, preceded by “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” and followed by “Lady Vengenace”. Co-written for the screen and directed by Park Chan-wook with the excellent editing by Kim Sang-bum and the music score of Cho Young-wuk and cinematography of Chung Chung-hoon, Oldboy became a landmark of vengeance on the screen. Not only for being an action-packed thriller chasing for revenge with violence and brutality in demand of such films, Oldboy strips bare open the human souls and hearts as Roger Ebert had described it. A double-edged “China Town”-like film, Oldboy is full of thrills, twists, actions, love, sex, hatred all under a psychological and moral analytic microscope.

Winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes Film Festival, Oldboy went on to win many other festival awards across the globe such as British Independent Film Award, Asia Pacific Film Festival, Blue Dragon Film Award, Bangkok International Film Festival, Austin Film Critics Association, Director’s Cut Award, Belgian Film Critics Association, Golden Trailer Film Award, Hong Kong Film Awards, Stockholm International Film Festival, Bergen Film Critics Association, and Stiges film Festival. Unconventional of its own genre from the start to finish, the film was praised by many critics not just as another thriller but one with content and purpose that Hollywood could learn from. While not much mentioned in the western world critic of the film, there is an Oedipal complex core in the film where Oh Dae-su acts like Oedipus in his incest and cuts his tongue parallel to the Greek mythical king cut out his eyes to avoid seeing the truth of his sin of killing his father and marrying his mother. Another parallel with the Greek mythology is the aging of Oh Dae-su like the mortal Oedipus opposed to the never aging of Woo-jin like who’s wealthy and powerful like the immortal Apollo.  



In closing remarks “Oldboy” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality: The originality of “Oldboy” is its unconventional storytelling style for an action thriller, in filming, editing and beyond for psychologically and morally probing into the human’s psyche and soul underneath the wounded flesh.
  2. Technicality: The technicality of “Oldboy” is in its script, use of camera, cinematography and music score all in concert to pound the hearts and make some audience sitting at the edge of their seats, while challenging the minds and morals of others.
  3. Impact Factor: The influence of “Oldboy” has been on many other films and filmmakers of the similar genre and as an example Steven Spielberg intended to direct a remake of the film in 2008 but a year later withdrew the project, until in 2013 Spike Lee made an American remake under the same title starring Josh Brolin.
  4. Survival: “Oldboy” is still as good to watch and being surprised and affected as it was initially 16 years ago.


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