For those who are constantly badgered by friends to watch older movies that you just never got around to watching, Netflix is a godsend. I find myself in the same boat pretty often, with some people acting almost insulted that I haven’t seen one classic or another, so in a desperate attempt to stay relevant I’ve recently been trying to find the time to go through the older movies on Netflix that have passed me by as yet more and more movies make their way to an easily accessible platform. 2003 is already over ten years ago now, so I think that this movie qualifies.
Scrolling through Netflix, the title Oldboy caught my eye because of some vague recollection of a friend saying how much he hated the movie because of its ending. Granted, this is the same friend who rewatches The Dark Knight Rises at least once a week, so I was already prepared for a difference of opinion. Before I continue, I’d also like to note that the movie on Netflix is the 2003 film directed by Park Chan-wook, not the 2013 American remake by Spike Lee. This means that the entire movie is in Korean with English subtitles, but their pacing makes them easy to read compared to some other foreign works. I’m looking at you, The Tatami Galaxy.
Based off of a manga by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi, Oldboy is the second installment of The Vengeance Trilogy, which should give you an idea of what sort of themes it deals with. Oh Dae-su is kidnapped on while he is out drinking instead of attending his daughter’s birthday and ends up held hostage in a hotel room for fifteen years. After learning that he has been framed for his wife’s murder, Dae-su clings to his sanity by training to fight, digging a hole in the wall to freedom, and planning his revenge on the one responsible for his imprisonment. However, just as he manages to break through the wall of the building, his room fills with gas, and when he wakes up he finds himself on a rooftop in the city. The movie continues as a thriller in which Dae-su, accompanied by a young sushi chef, goes on a hunt for the man who imprisoned him and the reason why. These scenes of intrigue are punctuated by the occasional outbreak of graphic violence or sexuality, so I wouldn’t recommend this film for younger audiences.
This work is visually enthralling from start to finish, playing with perspectives using mirrors, phone and computer screens, and different shots being shown at the same time. The choreography in the fights is also a pleasure to watch due in part to the fact that Choi Min-sik, the actor who plays Dae-su, did most of his own stunt work. Additionally, his portrayal of a man driven to desperation and insanity shines in its contrast to Yoo Ji-tae’s acting in the role of Dae-su’s adversary Lee Woo-jin, who is meticulous, obsessive, and possessive. The man bites the head off of a live octopus, and I loved every minute of it.
As far as themes go, Oldboy is far more introspective about revenge and the search for truth than other thrillers in recent memory. The tendency for revenge to be consuming but ultimately unsatisfying is touched on throughout the film, and it is portrayed as competing with the pursuit of truth even to the point of making one lose sight of which truth he should find. The nature of memories themselves also play a large role in the work; their distortion, manipulation, and loss, natural and unnatural, are key to the central conflict. Each character is troubled by their own personal demons, and even if they are viewed as insignificant in the eyes of others, they have wide-reaching consequences.
As far as the plot goes, I enjoyed this movie as a thriller especially because the main character isn’t some kind of professional killer or unbeatable martial artist. Dae-su is a man who was past his physical prime even before the events of the movie, and no amount of physical training was able to wipe away the toll of fifteen years of isolation. He’s able to beat up his fair share of henchmen, sure, but he also suffers his fair share of injuries and fainting in the process. The mystery was intriguing even after the identity of the imprisoner is revealed, and while the ending definitely has some controversial elements, its twisted version of poetic justice and its bittersweet result bring about a satisfying if somewhat open-ended conclusion. There were even some genuinely comedic moments sprinkled throughout the film to provide a stark contrast to its brutality.
At least I take comfort in the fact that I’m not alone in enjoying Oldboy, despite the opinions of one or two personal friends. The critics of Rotten Tomatoes gave this movie scores that averaged out to 80 out of 100%, which is only 7% below The Dark Knight Rises and, tellingly, almost twice the score of the newer adaptation of Oldboy. I would definitely suggest waiting until any kids (or, if you’re a rebel watching movies above your suggested age rating, parents) are definitely asleep before starting it up, but if you don’t mind its graphic nature and having to read subtitles for about two hours, then it is definitely one of the better thrillers available on Netflix.