Thursday, September 1, 2005

MOVIES: The rage of 'Oldboy'

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He doesn’t know what he did. But one day, Oh Dae-su (played by Choi Min-sik) is grabbed from off the street and thrown into a mysterious prison, where he is locked up, unable to go outside, slowly going insane.

He is there for the next 15 years. When he is freed, one thing is on his mind — revenge. What he finds will astonish, change and possibly destroy him.

“Oldboy,” a South Korean movie, combines Alfred Hitchcock-style suspense with immensely brutal violence and psychological conflict. It’s often hard to watch due to its staggering intensity, but in the end it’s a harsh film you can’t quite get out of your head.

If you can handle the gore and malice, “Oldboy” sucks you in with its powerful tale of revenge and hatred spanning decades. Oh Dae-su has no idea why he’s been locked away, but gradually it becomes apparent there’s an evil mastermind behind the plot. Why and how the plan unspools requires paying really close attention to the plot, but the ending is devastating and tremendously effective.

Choi’s amazing performance as Oh Dae-su is something to watch. After 15 years away from the sun, he’s pale, with haunted eyes and a madman’s hair, the endless days of rage and frustration in his every movement. Choi’s tremendous acting makes watching his character’s abuse that much tougher.

Director Chan-wook Park has a dazzling visual style, using swiftly moving camera angles, lighting and colors to portray Oh Dae-su’s turmoil. The violence is portrayed in a brutal, ultra-realistic fashion — one amazing fight scene dances up and down a dingy hallway, as Oh Dae-su battles off an entire group of thugs armed with nothing more than a claw hammer. You feel every blow.

Still, in the end you wonder if the picture is nothing but style — does all the cruelty and horror really mean anything? As an admirer of pure cinematic visuals and storytelling, I appreciate “Oldboy,” but from an ethical and moral perspective, it leaves you feeling as battered as Oh Dae-su. It's unrelenting.

“Oldboy” is the very definition of a cult film that will only appeal to a select audience. With the violence, the subtitles and twisting plot, it’s a movie you must work to fully experience. But as unpleasant as it sometimes is, “Oldboy” is still a powerful statement.
*** of four

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