Sunday, 15 May 2016

Old Boy Review

Click here to go my previous review of Once Upon a Time in America


"Even though I am no better than a beast, don't I deserve a chance to live?"

Number 82 on top 1000 greatest films of all time is the mystery thriller neo-noir thriller Old Boy.

After seven American films, I have returned to the best of foreign-language cinema.  South Korea's contribution is the brilliant Old Boy.

One night without any explanation, Korean Businessman Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-Sik) is kidnapped and placed in a hotel room-cum-prison cell.  Here he is held for fifteen years with no explanation given to who his captor is or why he is being imprisoned.  He spends his time shadow-boxing, watching TV and attempting to tunnel his way out of his cell.  However, before he finishes his attempt he is abruptly released.  Upon being released, with the help of young sushi chef Mido (Kang Hye-jung,) Oh Dae-su vows to discover the identity of his captor and take his revenge.

Old Boy is not a film for the faint-hearted.  If you are squeamish or unable to follow such a densely plotted film, then I suggest you buckle up and give it your best shot.  Even if you can't follow the film's many twists and turns, then you can at least appreciate the film's cinematography.  I've read IMDB reviews praising the film's cinematography and I would say that this praise is well-deserved.  Stylistically this film is brilliant.  As one review reads "each shot is bursting with colour." There is an incredible amount of detail.  This ranges from the close-ups to the master shots.  In some form or another, each and every shot contained meaning.

Oh Dae-Su also narrates this film in the present tense giving the film a real energy.  It makes it that more intense.

When Oh Dae-Su is locked in the prison, he spends his time shadow-boxing.  When he is released he puts this taining to good use in some excellently choreographed fight scenes, such as the famous one-take corridor fight scene.  This was made only more epic by the music playing.

Overall the musical score is great.  In every scene, the music fits it perfectly.

The characters are densely layered and entirely three-dimensional.  From the beginning, it was obvious that he would be fulfilling the tragic hero archetype, with Oh Dae Su's fatal flaw being that he speaks too much.  The film opens with him being in a police station after being arrested for drunken and disorderly behaviour.  In the station, he gets himself into more trouble by refusing to keep his mouth shut.  His character is initially portrayed as pathetic and annoying, which is his transformation to a fearless killer by the film's conclusion is so great to watch.

Whilst the vast majority of reviews I read praised the film on its visuals, direction and performances, there were one or two more critical ones.  These reviews pointed out that the film is riddled with plot-holes, both big and small.  This is something I can respect, as I noticed a few of my own.  Firstly, Oh Dae-Su is able to attempt tunnelling out of prison, as once during dinner, he was given three metal chopsticks instead of two.  Why was he given the third chopstick? I can only assume his captors wanted to see Oh Dae-Su attempt to escape and failing.

Secondly, Oh Dae-Su has been locked in a prison for fifteen years with little exposure to sunlight and all of the benefits it brings.  How then is he able to successfully able to defend himself against multiple enemies in fight after fight? Not only does he fight them off, but he leaves them struggling to breathe on the floor.  This is despite how earlier on in the film, he collapses from vitamin A and E deficiencies.

Thirdly, I felt that the antagonist, Lee Woo-Jin (Yoo Ji-tae) was played by a far too young actor.  Woo-Jin was an old school colleague of Dae-Su's.  This would imply, of course, that the two went to school together.  However, their ages don't add up.  Dae-Su looks to be in his forties, whereas Woo-Jin still appears to be in his twenties.  This therefore makes Woo-Jin too young to be behind Dae-Su's imprison, as he would have still been a teenager when Dae-Su was kidnapped.  I think that the studio should have found an older actor to play Yoo-Jin.  This is no disrespect to Yoo Ji-Tae's brilliant performance, but I feel that this is too big of a plot-hole to ignore.

Another of the IMDB reviews criticised Old Boy for how it is so against its protagonist Dae-Su.  Whilst I argue that this is true, I feel that this is all part of the tragic hero archetype and the revenge narrative.


Old Boy is a film about the futility of revenge.  Dae-Su wants revenge on Woo-Jin for kidnapping him.  Woo-Jin wants revenge on Dae-Su for how at school, he saw him commit incest with his sister and then began spreading rumours about it.  One of these rumours was that Woo-Jin got his sister pregnant.  It is never confirmed whether this is true or not, but the devastating implications of it leads to his sister killing herself.  Both men commit themselves to their vengeance.  Dae-Su enlists the help of Mido and his friend Joo-hwan (who pays the ultimate price for helping Dae-Su) to track down Woo-Jin.  However, Woo-Jin's revenge is far more sadistic and destructive.  At the same time as he kidnaps and imprisons Dae-Su, he also kidnaps Dae-Su's four year old daughter and, for fifteen years, raises her as if she were his own (another reason why the actor playing Woo-Jin should have been older.) After Dae-Su is released, using post-hypnotic suggestion, Woo-Jin manipulates Dae-Su and Mido into falling in love with each other and eventually having sex.  Woo-Jin the reveals to Dae-Su that Mido is actually his daughter and he has just committed incest.

So whilst the IMDB reviewer was right in saying that the film is not with its protagonist, I think this film showcases the danger of becoming overcome by a desire for vengeance.  Old Boy is very much a film where the bad guy wins.  We see the pathetic, but tragic image of Dae-Su being reduced to a grovelling mess begging Woo-Jin not to reveal the truth to Mido.  He kisses Woo-Jin's shoes, says that he will be his dog and goes so far to cut out his tongue to signify that he will never speak too much again.  See Dae-Su destruct in front of his eyes, Woo-Jin's quest for vengeance is fulfilled.  Having nothing else to live for, he kills himself, leaving Dae-Su to live his dishonour.  Dae-Su has become consumed by his quest for vengeance and it has cost him everything.

The final scene is the film's most powerful.  Dae-Su goes to a hypnotherapist who he hopes can make him forget what has happened.  Yet it is left ambiguous whether this actually works.  The final shots of the film see Dae-Su meeting Mido with her saying that she loves him.  The final shot is Dae-Su's tortured grin.

Old Boy is a deeply psychological film about one man who becomes consumed by his desire for revenge.  It is an absolute must-see and it is in my top five films that I have seen since I started this challenge.  I think it should be much higher than number 82.  It is certainly better than Citizen Kane or Witness for the Prosecution.  Old Boy is full of gorgeous proverbs, but I'll end this review on its most prevalent one:

"Laugh and the world laughs with you.  Weep and you weep alone."

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