With 2002's Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance Chan-Wook Park consolidated a somewhat cultish reputation in the West. An Asian filmmaker, he slotted into the critical spectrum somewhere between Wong Kar-Wai and Miike Takeshi - his distinctive films featuring something of the former's romanticism and the latter's madcap, often violent, inventiveness. More specifically, Park is at the forefront of a new energy in South Korean filmmaking, along with Ki-Duk Kim (Bad Guy), Joon-Ho Bong (Memories Of Murder) and Ji-Woon Kim (A Tale Of Two Sisters), among others.
A remarkable film, Oldboy concerns Dae-Su Oh (Choi), introduced as a boorish salaryman before he's abducted and imprisoned in a cell decorated like a 1970s bedroom. He's there for 15 years, slowly going mad, possibly, but also educating himself from the TV, training up his body and focussing on just what deed in his life could have put him in such circumstances; he sees on TV that his wife has been murdered and that he is the main suspect. "I thought I had an average life. But I've sinned too much," he says, in the years of introspection. The 15-year ellipsis isn't entirely convincing, but Park concludes the incarceration sequence with a split screen (just one of many devices he uses confidently), Oh on the left, world history on the right - Diana dying, 9/11, Korea in the World Cup semis.
Suddenly, Oh is out in the world - a "larger prison". His fighting skills are impressive, as is his knowledge for trivia, but his social skills are rudimentary. It doesn't seem to matter to sushi chef Mi-Do (Kang), and the pair become an awkward item, the much younger woman intrigued and moved by his story. Together they set about trying to solve the riddle of Oh's damaged life, aided by his old friend Joo-Hwan (Ji) and even by cryptic phone calls from the man behind it all. "Why? Why did you imprison me? Who did you think I am?" asks Oh not unreasonably. "I'm a sort of scholar. And my thesis is you," replies the perpetrator, Woo-Jin Lee (Yu), a rich man with a mysterious, manipulative agenda. But why?
On his way to solving the riddle, Park and his co-screenwriters Jo-Yun Hwang and Chun-Hyeong Lim really put the protagonist through the mill. It's pretty Jacobean stuff - violent, vengeful, impassioned, angry. In one incredible sequence, the camera tracks slowly left to right alongside a corridor as Oh fights his way through a mob of heavies armed with clubs and blades. No balletic martial arts here, instead it's brutal but compellingly so, the hero resisting pain and defeat due to his all-consuming motivation. Well, almost all-consuming. To balance the heavy, nay sadistic scenes, Park also tells a troubled, tender love story, as Oh discovers a type of humanity through Mi-do, and she has her naive life opened up. To call it unconventional doesn't cut it; this is amour fou in the maddest of circumstances.
Like Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, this is a revenge story, but it's a richer, more mature film, in terms of its twisted plotting, its intriguing characterisation and its continual inventiveness (right down to a fantasy involving a giant ant). The initially chubby Oh hardly has the imposing physicality of Lee Marvin in Point Blank, one Western point of comparison, but he's psyched and he's got little else to live for other than solving the riddle. The notion of his life being manipulated draws comparison with David Fincher's The Game, but the circumstances here have a more credible intensity, even if the theme - of one man's catharsis and salvation - is similar.