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By Ben Nicholson • January 27th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5

Original release: October 15th, 2004
Running time: 120 minutes

Country of origin: South Korea
Original language: South Korean

Director: Park Chan-wook
Writers: Garon Tsuchiya, Nobuaki Minegishi, Hwang Jo-yun, Lim Chun-hyeong, Park Chan-wook, Lim Joon-hyung

Cast: Choi Min-sik, Yu Ji-tae, Hye-jeong Kang


I remember the first time I saw Oldboy; at the Cornerhouse cinema in Manchester on its UK release in 2004. I was, by that time, well aware of what foreign cinema had to offer and had devoured the small choice of foreign movies available from my local rental store; The Three Colours trilogy, Seven Samurai, Brotherhood of the Wolf, Crouching Tiger… et al.

When I walked out of seeing this film, it really opened my eyes to what modern world cinema was all about and what it could be and I have never looked back. I remember I saw it with a friend who I had virtually had to bribe into coming along with me and when we left the cinema, he was dumbfounded.

Oldboy is the story of a man, Oh Dae-su, who disappears one night and is mystifyingly imprisoned in a pseudo-hotel room with only a TV, some blank notebooks and his confusion for company – as well as the odd dose of gas and the ensuing mental problems that come with it. During his 15 year imprisonment he sees on the news that his wife’s been murdered and his DNA has been placed at the crime scene making him the prime suspect.

Dae-su spends all his waking hours training and planning for his revenge and then, one day, he’s released just as inexplicably as he was locked up. He wakes up inside a trunk on a rooftop in a smart suit, with a wad of cash in his pocket and is challenged to work out who imprisoned him and why. With the help of a beautiful young chef at the sushi restaurant where he eats his first free meal (a live octopus which whose tentacles writhe around his chin as he gobbles it down – which is worth seeing the film for if nothing else) he learns that in his absence, his daughter was adopted by a Swedish couple and so he sets about trying to work out why all of this has happened.


This film encapsulates everything that makes Park’s work so interesting and is, for my money, his one true masterpiece to date. Here he combines the ultra-stylish nature of later works like Lady Vengeance and Thirst with the squirm-inducing violence most closely aligned with the first in his vengeance trilogy, Sympathy For Mr Vengeance.

As with that film, Oldboy doesn’t state outright who the title character is and gives us two different possibilities as to who it is that’s exacting their vengeance. The combination of the style and violence is perfectly demonstrated in a number of scenes, such as when Dae-su first finds the building where he was imprisoned and has a frozen moment holding his hammer up above the skull of a jailer; a dotted line appears on the screen to alert us to his intentions were it not already obvious.

This marriage is then taken to even further levels with the scene from the film that most people remember the most: a profile view of Dae-Su fighting his way down a corridor of armed goons with only a hammer. This shot lasts two and a half minutes and whilst it may not challenge the likes of Bela Tarr for shot length it is wonderfully Oldboychoreographed (I recall Peter Bradshaw comparing it to the Bayeux Tapestry (1)) and then the scene finishes with a moment of Park’s trademark black-comedy when Dae-Su enters and exits the lift.

The performances are all very good, Choi Min-sik is a truly captivating as Dae-su conveying every tiny bit of rage and self hatred on his deeply lined face. He is supported ably by Yu Ji-tae (as Lee Woo-jin) and Hye-jeong Kang as his love interest Mido. The story unfolds at a perfect pace and the final revelations are both shocking and horrific – the vengeance exacted perfectly and in the cruelest and most calculating fashion.

What really made Oldboy special for me though, when I walked out of the cinema in 2004, was its emotional resonance. The climax whilst brutal and horrific is also heartbreaking as is the tale told through flashbacks as Dae-su unravels his tormentor’s motives.

Despite being a story of vengeance, filled with unremitting violence the ending is both desperately sad and also the only possible happy ending that the plot could allow. Having re-watched the film a number of times since that first screening in 2004, I can confirm that the film loses none of that significance by already being aware of how events will unfold and is just as tragic and moving as when I first saw it. And if nothing else, with Oldboy Park Chan-wook opened my eyes to modern Asian cinema and to some of the best films that I have ever seen, so I should at least thank him for that.

(1) Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (Oct 15th, 2004)

Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson

Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.

His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.

Ben has his own film site, ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE, and you can follow him on Twitter @BRNicholson.

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