The first time I saw Oldboy it was a bootleg DVD with poor picture, terrible sound, and subtitles I could barely read. And even then, under such less-than-ideal circumstances, I knew I was watching one of the best films I had seen in years. Part of a fairly recent wave of movies from South Korea, Oldboy has been building a legion of loyal fans among those who had seen it at film festivals, during its limited theatrical runs, and on "pirated" DVDs imported from Asia. But now, with its offical U.S. release courtesy the good folks at Tartan Asia Extreme, Oldboy has an opportunity to reach and even larger audience, who will no doubt become diehard fans of this a dark, disturbing film that puts most American action movies to shame and leaves all other psychological thrillers cowering in the dust.
Choi Min-sik stars as Oh Dae-su, a hard drinker who, for reasons he does not know, finds himself held captive in a strange apartment-turned-prison. Dae-su tries to make sense of his situation, compiling a rather lengthy list of those he has wronged, but he still cannot fathom who would want to see him suffer like this. He spends his days watching television, punching the wall, and slowly but surely digging a tunnel to freedom, all the while his sanity slowly slips away. In the mean time, his captors continue to manipulate him, injecting him with drugs and hypnotizing him for their own sinister reasons. After 15 long years, Dae-su is released. Now he must find out who had him locked up and get his revenge. Along the way, he falls in love with a young woman (Hye-jeong Kang) who tries to help him unravel the mystery.
Dae-su's investigation takes him down a dark path of deception and violence. In one of the film's most brutal moments, our tortured hero, armed only with a hammer, takes on a small army of thugs. But as he comes closer to understanding why he was imprisoned all those years, Dae-su begins to realize that the pain and anguish he endured in captivity was nothing compared to what his mysterious tormentor has in store for him now.
In a complex performance that runs the gamut of humanity and brutality, Choi Min-sik stakes his claim as one of the greatest tough guys in the history of cinema, joining the ranks of Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson and Toshiro Mifune. American audiences may know Min-sik from his hardboiled turn in Shiri, but his performance in Oldboy is the stuff of movie legend. By the time Dae-su enters a sushi bar, orders "something alive", and proceeds to devour a live octopus, Min-sik has earned his places in the pantheon of onscreen asskickers. From his descent into madness, to his hammer-wielding attack against overwhelming odds, to his struggle to regain his humanity, Min-sik commands the screen in a way only a handful of actors ever have.
Oldboy is one of those rare films that succeeds on all levels. Director Park Chanwook never tips his hand, and the secret of Oldboy remains a mystery until he wants you to know what is going on. And then there are the twists, turns and plot hooks that blindside you and, at the end of the day, leave you drained and disturbed.