A wild, intensely cinematic ride into two men’s burning desire to get even, “Old Boy” falls slightly short of Korean helmer Park Chan-wook’s previous feature, the gripping psychodrama “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” (2002). Working with different scripters this time out, Park addresses his favorite theme of revenge as more of a game as a loutish businessman, locked up by a mysterious organization, tries to unravel the mystery when he’s released. Major festival positioning looks in the cards, but business outside Asia looks to be rather specialized for this meaty meal, strongly laced with cringe-inducing violence and dark sexual currents.
Released in South Korea Nov. 21, pic has been a brawny hit, with some 3.2 million admissions (roughly $23 million) to date, as well as copping gongs for director, actor Choi Min-shik and actress Gang Hye-jeong at the national Blue Dragon Film Awards. Foreign sales have already been racked up to Japan, Europe and Down Under, and talk of a U.S. remake is in the air — though the sexual underpinnings of this sometimes David Lynch-like movie look almost untranslatable in Hollywood’s increasingly conservative environment.
Choi, a legit actor who’s only slowly found acclaim on the bigscreen (notably as the drunken painter in Im Kwon-taek’s “Chihwaseon”), plays Oh Dae-su, a bibulous womanizer with a wife and baby daughter. After being rescued one night from a police station by a friend, he suddenly disappears. Next thing, he’s locked up in a cell equipped like a dingy hotel room, where he spends the next 15 years, with only TV for company, deep-fried dumplings for food and his own conscience to wrack for clues. To stay partly sane, and develop a killer punch he puts to use later on, Oh boxes the wall till his knuckles harden.
Using voiceover and TV programs to measure the passing of time, script plunges the viewer into a gripping, high-concept idea darkened by Oh discovering (via news bulletins) his wife has been murdered and he has been framed for the crime. Just when he’s almost succeeded in tunneling out with a pair of chopsticks, he’s suddenly set free, waking up in a trunk on top of a building.
Film keeps tightening the dramatic screws as Oh, after being given money and a cell phone by a street bum, wanders into a sushi bar, collapses and is taken home by a waitress, Mido (Gang, from “Nabi”). She’s just slightly screwed up herself, as a flashback in a subway train shows (one of several blackly comic, surreal ideas that pepper the early going), making the bond between the two at least acceptable dramatically. Meanwhile, Oh has been contacted on the cell by his anonymous jailer, who describes himself as “a kind of scholar; my major is you.”
With Mido’s help, Oh finds out his now-grown daughter is living in Sweden. Through a series of outlandish clues — that, by sheer cinematic slight-of-hand, manage to fit the pic’s surreal atmosphere — Oh even tracks down the restaurant that made the dumplings he ate daily, and thence the organization that kidnapped him. In a semi-stylized, tour-de-force action sequence (a single, three-minute, lateral tracking shot), he wreaks bloody vengeance on his jailers, with just his fists and a trusty hammer.
As in “Sympathy,” the opening 45 minutes are socko, fluidly cut, visually of a piece (with dull, non-primary colors, and cold blacks and grays), and atmospherically scored.
Real game now starts as Oh’s tormentor (Yu Ji-tae) gives him five days to solve the mystery’s who and why; otherwise, he’ll kill every woman Oh ever loved, including Mido. This leads Oh on a journey (mixed with flashbacks) to high school days — hence pic’s title — but his nemesis, revealed as Lee Woo-jin, has an even more terrible shock in store for Oh.
“Sympathy” subsequently maintained its grip by switching its focus to a new character and deepening the emotional texture. “Old Boy” has no such major change of tack. With Oh’s tormentor always in charge, and three steps ahead of his victim, the film doesn’t develop the same emotional clout, which weakens the final showdown between the two.
Though all the pieces of the complex plot do fall into place — if not without a lot of expository dialogue — the movie relies increasingly on sheer directorial smarts rather than an emotionally engrossing storyline.
Whether chomping down on a live octopus (in one of several scenes that require a strong stomach) or festering with half-crazed rage and impotence, Choi gives a bravura performance that powers the picture, drawing on the same unkempt melancholy he showed in “Chihwaseon” and “Failan.” (Some of the intensity may seem over-the-top to Western viewers, but is commonplace in Korean dramas.) Gang is also very good in the key role of Mido, mixing tenderness and ditziness, plus good chemistry with Choi.
Only Yu, who’s shown an aptitude for young, intense roles (“Attack the Gas Station!”, “Natural City”), seems miscast as the tormentor, a largely one-dimensional role that requires much more shading. The age disparity between him and Choi, for roles that are only a few years apart, also niggles.
On a tech level, pic is aces, from Jeong Jeong-hun’s widescreen photography to Yu Seong-heui’s evocative sets. Kim Sang-beom’s editing is as tight as a drum until the final, over-long confrontation and problematical coda. Growing use of classical music in the second half is needlessly distracting.
Subtitles on version caught could be marginally improved, correcting a couple of prominent typos and translating some on-screen Korean for clarity. Pic has so far received only a single offshore public screening, in Harry Knowles’ annual 24-hour Austin fest, Butt-Numb-A-Thon, in early December, where response by buffs was positive.