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OLDBOY (2003) *****

Directed by Park Chan-wook. Starring Choi Min-sik, Kang Hye-jung, Yoo Ji-tae, Ji Dae-han, Kim Byeong-ok. Thriller, South Korea, 120 minutes, cert 18.

4K restoration released in UK cinemas on the 2nd August 2019 by Arrow Films.

 

If you've spent the past 15 years trapped against your will in a small room by a vindictive former acquaintance then you may have missed Park Chan-wook's stylishly bonkers South Korean revenge thriller OLDBOY. However, now is the perfect time to catch up as Arrow Films is releasing a new 4K restoration of this cult classic. So park your quest for bloody vengeance for a couple of hours and head to the cinema for hammer handling and sushi etiquette tips to help you on your own vengeful way.

 

Based on a Japanese manga, and originally released in 2003, OLDBOY went on to win the Grand Prix prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival buoyed by Quentin Tarantino's vocal support. Falling in the middle of his unofficial, and narratively unconnected, ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ this was Park Chan-wook's breakthrough film to wider western audiences and helped raise the profile of the sub genre of violent Korean revenge thrillers. There have since been many imitators, including a pointlessly inert American remake by Spike Lee in 2013, and South Korean filmmakers have continued to make their mark on western culture with Park Chan-wook himself directing the recent BBC series THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL and Bong Joon-ho making a splash with his Netflix released OKJA. So you may wonder if OLDBOY still has the power to surprise in 2019. I’d argue it’s still as idiosyncratic and potent as it ever was.

 

The plot concerns sketchy businessman Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) who wakes from a drunken stupor to find himself locked in an unfamiliar hotel room with no information on why he is there. Things get worse when he finds that he has been framed for his wife’s murder. He is forced to pass the lonely days shadow boxing, hallucinating ants, and raking through his memories cataloguing who he may have wronged. Then suddenly, 15 years later, with no announcement or explanation he is released. Unsurprisingly he’s desperate to find out who did this to him. His quest for answers leads him to becoming romantically embroiled with a young sushi chef Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung) who is eager to help. However, his captor’s evil grand scheme has only just begun.

 

Choi Min-sik, switching deftly between being manic, stoic and wailing in extreme anguish, is excellent as Dae-su. The image of his deadpan face topped with a wild shock of black hair will forever embed itself in your brain. He’s also genuinely funny in parts in a pitch black way.

The film has two iconic sequences that are likely familiar to those that haven’t even watched it. I knew what was coming but they still made an impact on this re-watch. The impressively choreographed one-take hammer fight will always be a joy to watch unfold, and the octopus scene is still just as unpleasantly icky; CGI can get old but a bloke shoving an actual live octopus down his gob never will.

 

It has a reputation as a twist movie, so you might think it's not worth re-watching, but there’s so much going on it’s definitely worth revisiting especially in Arrow’s gorgeous new 4K print. There are little quirky details peppered throughout and Park Chan-wook’s flashy style whisks you along effortlessly, meaning you barely notice the 2 hour running time.

 

One thing that hasn't aged well is the film’s gender politics. Mi-do, the only prominent female character, is fundamentally just a plot point and not a fully realised character. Also it’s an incredibly uncomfortable watch when the film tries to play Dae-su’s attempts at sexual assault for laughs. This doesn’t spoil the overall film, but it unfortunately did occasionally leave a bad after taste.

 

This film definitely isn't for everyone (it's certainly not one to pop on for the family after Christmas dinner) as the uncompromising violence and the loopy melodrama will turn many off. The central revenge plot is completely ludicrous, and the finale lurches between heart wrenchingly grim and goofily daft, but if you buy in to the film it will hook you entirely. If you’re already a fan, or if you’ve never seen OLDBOY before but enjoy creative and extreme cinema, you owe it to yourself to see it on the big screen while you have the chance.

 

Reviewed by John Upton

 

 

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 © 2000 - 2018