Oldboy is a Korean movie about secrets and revenge. Its main selling point is a disturbing, wicked twist as part of the ending. There are a number of violent, cringe-inducing scenes that seem to be standard in the asian shock horror movie genre these days. This was also the most highly anticipated DVD on my viewing list this year and as I had extremely high expectations for this film, I was slightly disappointed that it was not as disturbing as I thought it would be, and the twist in the end was not as big and dramatic as I had braced myself for. Still, if you are looking for a different viewing experience and enjoy the 'oh shit' feeling when your assumptions are challenged while watching the story, then Oldboy is the movie for you.
(Reviewer's note: The following sections below describes some aspects of the story but contains no significant spoilers. Also I discuss the plot from the point of view of a first-time viewer watching the movie as it happens. So some of the narrative may mislead the true nature of the events as the movie itself contains secrets that will be revealed later. Watching this with a childlike open mind will significantly improve the entertainment value of this film. -rob)
The protagonist is a man named Dae-su who has been kidnapped and imprisoned for fifteen years in a small room all by himself with no human contact. During his confinement, he never sees his captor, he is fed the same food - fried dumplings, for every meal for the next fifteen years. His only contact to the outside world is a small TV set where he gets news, education, and recreation. From watching the news in his cell he finds out that his wife is murdered and that he is the prime suspect in the killing. Police issue a nationwide manhunt to look for him but of course never find him as he is safely hidden by his captors. Dae-su is filled with anguish and despair at not being able to defend himself and his family. His baby girl is whisked away and raised by foster parents and he comes to the realization that he may never see her again.
With nothing else to do, Dae-su keeps himself fit by practicing martial arts and shadow boxing, emulating the fight scenes he sees on TV. He gets his sex by masturbating to female pop stars on entertainment variety shows. In the next fifteen years, our protagonist's mental and physical state deteriorates. Lack of human contact and the sheer monotony of his detention makes him insane and he gets obsessed with thoughts of revenge toward his captors and the torture he plans to inflict on them after he gets out. Suddenly after a decade and a half of captivity, Dae-su is drugged and put to sleep. He wakes up in an open field, the first time he sees buildings and sunshine after many years. But he is now more of a beast than man and is only focused on finding his captors and making them suffer as he has suffered. This is an extremely well-made extended opening scene that sets up the premise of the story.
What happens next can appear to some viewers as bizarre and incoherent. We are treated to some cringe-worthy violent scenes which although disturbing, are not as bad as the worst scenes from Audition or Suicide Club. For instance, the camera pulls away from the shot where the actual violence takes place, then returns to the spot to show what had happened, leaving much to the imagination of the viewer.
There are also some extended graphic sex scenes between Dae-su and a young woman named Mi-do who falls in love with him. I like the Korean actress playing Mi-do; she has the rare attribute of being cute and sexy at the same time. This is kind of where the movie breaks down for me, as I found it hard to believe that an attractive woman such as Mi-do would be extremely dedicated to a beast-like man such as Dae-su who treated her like property. It was so much like the Asian stereotype of machismo strong man in full control of his subservient obedient wife/girlfriend. The story had been good so far but this facet of the plot made zero sense to me. Made me wonder if the director just wanted an excuse to show some sex and nudity.
We are also introduced to our villain, an extremely intelligent, crafty, good-looking man named Woo-jin. He seems to know all the secrets. He apparently knows the reason as to why Dae-su was imprisoned in the first place. Revealing the secret is the big payoff promised at the end of the movie.
There are also some other good scenes that act as either potential clues or time-filler depending on how you look at them. Dae-su eats a live squid, fights a hundred men in a unique action segment, and even barks like a dog in one of the stupidest, most outlandish scenes in movie history.
And of course we have the big ending where all questions are answered and where you get your wickedly disturbing twist. To tell you the truth I was bit disappointed and underwhelmed by the 'secret', but this was probably because I had extremely high expectations for this one. This is not the biggest plot twist you'll see in a movie. I still consider the surprise endings of Unbreakable and Mulholland Dr as superior to Oldboy's finale. Still if you're a fan of this kind of movie, and if you like to have something to think about after the credits roll, you will enjoy this.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars * * * *
Big twist. Moderately sick and disturbing but still good.
(Additional note: Feedback comments section may contain spoilers, so please view them only after watching this.)