My exposure to Korean cinema has been incredibly limited, in spite of the fact that there’s been a lot of critically acclaimed stuff coming out of the country in the past several years (Mother, The Host, and the work of Hong Sang-soo, to name a few). The one Korean film that I was really embarrassed not to have seen, though, was Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, the second film in his Vengeance Trilogy (the other two being Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance). Everyone talked about Oldboy in hushed tones. Netflix usually stuck it in the “extreme Asia” category (a category I’ve always had a problem with, since it seems to suggest that Japanese, Korean, and Chinese films have inherently more potential for gore and sexual violence than the films of other countries–the whole “Asia is weird!” theme seems like a tired re-treading of the “Asia is exotic!” theme).
But back to Oldboy. For some reason, I had long imagined that the film was a similar to movies like Takashi Miike’s Audition or Ichi the Killer–endless scenes of torture and over-the-top violence that, while solidly directed and acted, made for very squirmy viewing. Which in my mind was a good enough reason to avoid Oldboy. But then I finally watched it–and I was blown away.
To begin, Oldboy isn’t awash in violence and gore. Sure, there are several gut-wrenching scenes, and I probably wouldn’t recommend the film to anyone squeamish, but the graphic violence takes up about 2-3 minutes of the film’s total running time. It’s a shame that those scenes are what most people mention when they talk about the film, because it’s about so much more than that.
Beyond Oldboy‘s dizzying story (it’s over the top and hardly plausible, yes, but I still couldn’t look away), what really won me over was the performance of the lead actor, Choi Min-sik, who managed to create a character that was alternately repugnant, sympathetic, darkly funny, and terrifying–sometimes switching between all four in the space of just a few minutes. Choi reportedly gained and lost a lot of weight and did most of his own stunts (many of which looked pretty painful).
I won’t write a full review of Oldboy here, but will simply say that if you’re like me and have been avoiding the film because of stories about a few hard-to-watch scenes, don’t. Yes, you might need to avert your eyes occasionally, but Oldboy is amazing, and the real shocks come not from the violence, but from the whirlwind storytelling and the raw performances.