Though comparisons to the films of Quentin Tarantino will abound, Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy, a twisted and bloody revenge mystery, owes far more to David Fincher (Seven) and Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) in terms of substance and style. Driven by over-the-top emotionalism, this South Korean import is a ferociously violent, compellingly twisted and thoroughly modern reimagining of Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo.
On the night of his daughter’s third birthday, drunken businessman Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) is kidnapped and imprisoned in a seedy hotel room with only a television to connect him to the outside world. Locked away for 15 years, he fights to maintain his sanity (when not attempting suicide) while his mysterious captors frame him for the murder of his wife. Then, one day, they inexplicably set him free.
Left with nothing but a feral hunger for revenge, Dae-su Oh stalks the streets of Seoul like a deranged Job desperate to find out who ruined his life and why. He recruits the help of a young woman and an old high school chum to put together the complex (and not always logical) puzzle pieces that reveal his sadistic adversary’s devilish plan.
Choi (bearing an uncanny resemblance to Charles Bronson) is outstanding, expertly transitioning from simmering rage to wounded grief, often within the same scene. His ability to make the most outlandish plot contortions believable keeps the film from collapsing under its overly contrived weight.
The director indulges in the kind of blood-boiling passion found in classic Greek dramas or Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. He pushes the envelope of histrionics and brutality to epic proportions. The damage done to tongues and teeth, not to mention familial love, will challenge even the hardiest filmgoer. Still, he’s a skillful and creative filmmaker, able to create visually stunning moments and gritty action scenes that deliver a visceral punch. A single-shot fight sequence where Dae-su Oh battles a hallway full of gangsters, armed only with a hammer, has to be seen to be believed.
Oldboy offers so much emotional intensity and brutal velocity that it’s hard not to get caught up in its convoluted maze of revenge, punishment and karmic retribution. It has the kind of dramatic momentum that most Hollywood thrillers strive for and few achieve.
In Korean with English subtitles. Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].