Oldboy is a 2003 South Korean thriller/noir-mystery written by Hwang Jo-yoon/ Im Joon-hyeong/ Park Chan-wook and directed by Park Chan-wook. An adaptation of a Japanese graphic novel of the same name, the film has garnered a cult following for its strange, shocking story and gut wrenching plot twists.
One night while extremely drunk, Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is kidnapped off the streets and locked in a secure hotel room without being told why or who put him there. All he's given is a television so that he can be informed that he's been framed for the murder of his wife. Over the next fifteen years, he trains himself to kill whoever put him here when he finally escapes. However, he's released and given an ultimatum: if he can figure out why this was done to him within the next five days, the man who did it will kill himself. If he doesn't solve it the villain will kill Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung), a young woman who's been helping him and that he's become attracted to.
The setup is engagingly unique; I can't remember the last time a mystery centered solely around the "why" of the crime rather than the "what" or "who". A decent way into act one we already know who the bad guy is and what he looks like and the next step is figuring out why. It's really intriguing and every new clue is bizarre and shocking, but that's part of what makes following the bread crumbs so enjoyable. You want to see what kind of sick, twisted revelation they're going to uncover just to see what this is all leading up to and how all the pieces fit together. Admittedly, the way Oh Dae-su ultimately finds out what's going on is a bit of a cop out when it's first explained, but by the end it fits in with it's character and it's all tied up.
The characters are believable, for the most part. Oh Dae-su is starts out as the everyman and we understand his reactions to his situation. Even when he becomes a sociopathic killer we empathize with his desire for revenge and his motivation to find the truth. Mi-do is an ok character, although her motivation for helping Oh Dae-su is a bit weird at the start. However, that too gets explained by the film's sickening twist ending. The villain is one of the best I've seen onscreen in a very long time. He's creepy and despicable, but also horrifyingly captivating. You want to see what this deranged lunatic is going to do next, but at the same time you just want him to die.
The screenplay is pretty good, in that it uses the "show don't tell" rule nicely. They don't even outright tell you what the plot twist is at the end. Instead, they just have the main character, and the audience, figure it out themselves through visuals. It's incredibly refreshing. It's obvious the director and screenwriters were big fans of noir because the narration is excellent. It's stylized and just plain cool.
The biggest compliment I can give the story is that everything is completely wrapped up by the end. Any questions you had about questionable character behavior and weird hallucinations are all taken care of. However, at the very very end of the film Oh Dae-su makes a decision that I can't at all sympathize with. I think that's kind of the point, to give the film a bitter sweet, slightly horrifying ending, but it makes hm unlikeable in my eyes.
Be warned: this movie is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. The plot revelations and twists are shocking, warped and perverse.
The film is a technical masterclass in almost all areas, using the visual medium to tell the story in unique ways.
The camerawork is used to tell the story most often. The camera is constantly controlling our attention, bringing things in and out of focus to show us what's happening. For example, in one scene Oh Dae-su and Mi-do and looking for clues using a keyword on the internet. While she's reading down a list of names and eventually reads one that he recognizes, the camera focus shifts to where he's sitting behind her, letting the audience know that something significant is happening. That might sound simple, but you'd be surprised how many filmmakers would just have the character say, "Wait! What was that one?" instead. While the camera quality isn't bad it seems a bit grainy at times. I'm not going to say that they were using inferior equipment (I mean it was 2003) but I'm saying that sometimes the resolution looks like 1990s camera hardware than 21st century camera hardware. In the beginning of the film they do something really clever with the exposition. The main character is simply explaining who he is to an officer while he's drunkenly detained, but the camera takes a POV shot from the officer's perspective. That way, it's like he's speaking and talking about himself directly to the audience. Instead of coming across as lazy it comes off as funny, like the director is acknowledging that all of this exposition is solely for the audience, so why not have the character speak directly to us?
They do a few interesting things with the editing. For example, when Mi-do is thinking about something we actually go above and to the right of her head, almost like a thought bubble. Then, the train comes roaring in from out of nowhere, signifying that we're now in her head. There's another point in the film where they're trying to find the restaurant where they got food from to feed him while he was imprisoned. While he's tasting one of the dumplings there's a jump cut to him eating a dumpling in his hotel room prison. It's a great way to let the audience know what's going on and what he's looking for.
The acting is great alaround. There's no one great standout performance because the two actors that matter, Choi Min-sik as Oh Dae-su and Yoo Ji-tae as the villain, are both standout performances. Choi Min-sik manages to run the acting gambit of quiet badass, to hysterical, heartbroken madman. He's consistently compelling and slips into the role of the character for the whole ride. Yoo Ji-tae is simultaneously terrifying and tragic, laughing at the discomfort and suffering of his enemy while hiding darker demons of his own.
Only a few colors are really used throughout the film. There's green, which is mostly used in dark places. This gives the environment a cold, harsh feeling and somehow adds to the mysterious tone. Red is mostly used in the scenes with Mi-do, symbolizing passion and love. Oh Dae-su is almost always dressed in black, which symbolizes death and sin, two things he constantly carries and brings with him wherever he goes.
While the iconic hammer fight scene might be overrated as a fist fight I will give it credit for one clever decision: keeping the environment to a condensed hallway. See, the problem with staging fist fights, and action scenes in general, is that the audience can only focus on one thing going on at a time. If you had multiple people fighting multiple people in the same frame instead cutting back to the other from time to time you run the risk of the environment being too crowded to follow the action. Oldboy gets around this by making the fight take place in small, linear hallway, so there's really no other option except for there to be one on one fights while everybody else hangs back and waits their turn. Smart and effective.
I'll also give credit to the film for pulling off something really difficult in regards to sound editing; nothing is drowned out by anything else. As a sound editor it's really easy to let either the music or the diegetic sound over whelm the other. The Marvel films make this mistake a lot, preferring to let the music just be air conditioner level background noise. In Oldboy, the music and in-story sound are perfectly balanced, so that you're able to hear both without being distracted by either.
Summary: Oldboy is one of the most shocking, violent, bizarre, gut wrenching things I've ever seen. And it is amazing. Compelling characters portrayed by fantastic actors, great direction and cinematography and an incredible reversal on a traditional noir mystery all make Oldboy worth seeing at least once. However, again, if you don't have the stomach for some truly, unimaginably disturbing stuff I say skip it.