South Korea, fifteen years ago: for no apparent reason, a harmless drunken salaryman, Oh Dae-su (Min-sik Choi), is taken hostage and imprisoned in a cell that's a parody of a cosy living room. He starts his time as a buffoon, but by the time of his present day escape, he has become a vengeance-crazed psycho-killer. So begins the film that gave Tarantino sleepless nights. No surprise why: Oldboy is better than both volumes of Kill Bill put together. It's a masterpiece.
There's a debt to Fight Club here, in Oldboy's use of computer effects in an up close, surreal way, and in the dark, hip cinematography, but it's a debt that's more than repaid by what Oldboy adds. The character of Oh Dae-su is the centre of the film, and he's a superb creation, a cool super killer who also has believable flaws. He's the equal of the greatest screen heroes, and carries us with him on his kill quest, a trajectory that ends up in a much darker place than either he or the audience expects.
There's graphic violence galore here, but it never feels gratuitous, however nasty it gets. To be honest, when I heard that Oldboy was notorious for showing a man eating a live squid, I expected the film to be a cheap and nasty shock-fest. But it's quite the opposite. The violence is essential to the story in the same way that the violence in Oedipus Rex or King Lear is essential: as a reflection of a man's state of mind, when he finds himself in an extreme, insane situation. There are wild plot twists, but they don't feel forced, or added just for effect. Oldboy exhilarates by aiming so high: a work of true ambition by a filmmaker at the peak of his abilities. More like this please! 9/10
Adrian Horrocks (March 2005)
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Kill Bill: Vol.1
Sympathy For Lady Vengeance
Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance
A-Z of Film Reviews