As with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the greatest joy to be had with Oldboy only comes after the first view. This is the perfect movie to spring on someone, because it’s a horror movie twist in a drama/thriller, and the twist can never be defanged. Some things are just universally wrong, based on how nature works, I suppose.
And getting to that final reveal is one brilliant scene after another, the kinds of set-pieces that feel self-contained, like short films. Oldboy is maybe an anthology of inventive moments, held together by a strong narrative.
But this is a very backward way to think about it. It’s not an anthology, and the connection between these scenes is strong. It’s just unusual for a movie to have A) a good story, and B) memorable scenes to embody that story.
And O the violence. If we’re working backward then, we start with story, and the story units are scenes, and the thing that makes the scenes so jolting is the violence. This is Chan Wook Park violence, something that the international market had yet to familiarize with. JSA was ultraviolent for the sentimental drama it is, and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance had critics thinking Park was another Miike, so Oldboy should come as no surprise.
But it’s something of an in-between for the trilogy. It’s the raw, unflinching hits and sadism of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, and the beautiful, maybe poetic slices and stabs of Lady Vengeance.
At its center we have a force of nature in ‘hero’ Oh Dae Su. This is a revenge tale, and although the nature of the revenge takes an unexpected shape (we suspect from the beginning that something is amiss, given the general weirdness of the movie), he starts human and ends monster. The transformation is a physical one, of makeup and performance — both completely selling.
Oh Dae Su’s is a dark journey, a brutal parade of torture, gangsters, hammer-fights, and psychological anguish. The ending does not spare him the rest he needs, it does the opposite, and maybe because he chose this path of vengeance. But things are more complicated, and it will devastate him and YOU.