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By Andreas Neuenkirchen | March 25, 2005

Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is an average family man who loves his wife and little daughter. Every now and then he drinks a little too much, but generally he is a harmless guy. When one night he is abducted and thrown in a make-shift prison cell, he has no idea why. And for the next 15 years nobody will tell him. For 15 years he gets abused in several ways, a TV set is his only connection to the outside world. He learns that his wife has been murdered and he is a suspect. He teaches himself how to fight by watching boxing matches and punching the prison walls, and he devises an escape plan. Shortly before he can carry it out, he is simply set free, again without explanation. He is also provided with new clothing and a mobile phone.

Now Oh Dae-su wants to put his new fighting skills to use. He beats up young hooligans and decides to track down the man responsible for his ordeal. He teams up with young female sushi chef Mido (Gang Hye-jung), who will eventually become his lover. They don’t have to search long for Oh Dae-su’s former tormentor, as he is all too eager to make himself known. Because Oh Dae-su’s torment has not yet ended…

(Minor cryptic spoilers ahead)

Directed and co-written by Chan-wook Park, director of the South-Korean blockbuster and international festival hit “Joint Security Area”, “Old Boy” is the middle part of a vengeance trilogy that started with 2002’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and is about to be concluded with “Sympathy for Mrs. Vengeance”. “Old Boy” has been awarded the Jury Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes film festival. It has been repeatedly compared to Kill Bill and “The Count of Monte Cristo.” It has also been called a meditation on vengeance, destiny and redemption.

How come that lately every dull movie is called a meditation on something? There’s no meditation here, and there’s no need for it, as there is no subtext, no psychological depth, no philosophical insight. The film starts out strongly, however. The scenes in the prison are intense, well directed and especially well acted, complimented by great set design. Unfortunately it’s all going downhill after Oh Dae-su’s release. The more of the plot’s secrets are revealed, the more laughable it becomes. In the final act, when the movie should pick up pace, it comes to a grinding halt with endless flashbacks to the main characters’ school years. If you still didn’t get it, the unconvincing villain Lee Woo-jin will spell it all out to you again in endless monologue when Oh Dae-su arrives at his penthouse for the showdown. The final surprise revelations about the characters and their true connections to each other are surprising indeed. There’s potential for great drama here, but Chan-wook Park is too concerned with scientifically explaining every little detail of the plot. With fewer explanations the film would have worked far better, as most of those explanations are extremely far-fetched, topped by an incredibly sappy epilogue.

Were “Old Boy” intended as a silly comic-book style revenge flick, all this might have been okay. Even Yoo Ji-tae’s over-the-top performance as the tacky bad guy might have made sense in a different context. But “Old Boy” is intended as a bleak drama. There is very little fighting and even less humor, and the love story makes you feel uncomfortable even before the devilish secret at its core is revealed. That would be okay, if “Old Boy” delivered in the drama department. But it doesn’t. We never grow close to Oh Dae-su or Mido. The actors are fine enough, though. Choi Min-sik, who rose to fame with South-Korean action hit Shiri and has won several awards since then, is not just a stoic spitting image of Charles Bronson with slightly crazier hair in most of the movie, he also shows intense emotion in the early and final scenes. Gang Hye-jung is endearing right from the start, although you wonder what she finds in that Bronson guy. When you find out at the end, it’s not the actress’ fault, but the script’s.

South-Korean movies are hot, hot, hot at the moment. That’s a good thing, because in many cases the hype is well deserved. “Old Boy”, however, is not one of those.

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  1. Tim says:

    “Every dull movie is called a meditation on something.” That’s lazy criticism.

  2. googergieger says:

    I wasn’t saying she hated it simply because it was popular. I’m saying she hated it because she really wanted to hate it. I mean that is one vile review.

    I mean she is complaining that the antagonist is revealing his big revenge plot to the protagonist(who would need the revealing)as a down point? Why because we already know the entire story? Great! We aren’t in the movie. The movie is about characters, who aren’t sitting back watching the entire movie to know what’s going on with everyone at all times. Not to mention characters that don’t exist. I mean that’s the problem with a lot of these reviewers, a complete lack of empathy. “I don’t know anyone who would act like that in real life or act like this in real life, so in this movie people acting like that is totally unbelievable and wrong!”

    Then you have, “How come that lately every dull movie is called a meditation on something? There’s no meditation here, and there’s no need for it, as there is no subtext, no psychological depth, no philosophical insight.”

    You can say that about anything! Honestly every movie you can say, someone said it was deep or meaningful and call it out on being a superficial obvious fluff. Again, I wasn’t saying this reviewer was saying she hated the movie because it was popular, I’m saying she hated the movie because she wanted to hate it.

  3. Mark Bell says:

    I too love this film. That said, just because I love it, it doesn’t mean that Andreas is wrong or flawed for having a differing opinion. My stance on reviews from my writers is simple: say how you feel, honestly, about a film, regardless of whether it falls in line with, or in direct opposition to, popular opinion. As long as my writers believe in what they’re saying, and stand behind their opinions… doesn’t matter if I disagree, I respect it.

    The idea that, in 2005, Andreas wrote a negative review of a film that, at that time, had not been widely seen (and revered as the cult hit it is today), simply to f**k with popular opinion, does not ring true here.

  4. John Wildman says:

    I love this film and have since I first saw it as a midnight movie at Sundance. I think it exemplifies the kind of intense, feral, reckless emotion-based horror that Korean filmmakers are able to do better than anyone else in the world.

  5. googergieger says:

    One person said he enjoyed this movie but didn’t get it. What was he missing he asked.

    “It was the story of Lee Woo Jin’s revenge(the real twist). About his tragic love, needing someone to blame. About that blame turning into obsession. About that obsession becoming his reason to live. He was the writer, director, and at times actor in his revenge plot involving Oh Dae Su.

    Both were victims, one an accidental one and the other born out of necessity. It’s hard to condone their actions, but it’s also hard to outwardly condemn them. ”

    That was my reply.

    You seem to really want to hate something that was almost universally loved, which is odd considering how hard it is to digest. I’m not surprised you and others didn’t like it. I just wish, you guys would step out of your comfort zones and watch something actually made to the best of it’s ability. Oh wells.

  6. Shane says:

    I also had difficulty connecting at any emotional level with the main character. I thought Sympathy for Lady Vengeance was a far superior movie technically as well as creating a rooting interest for the central character.

  7. Amy R Handler says:

    I know a critic is entitled to an opinion but total subjective, negativity doesn’t help anyone.

  8. Michael Neel says:

    Insightful comment, Me. Care to elaborate?

    I happen to disagree with the review as well, but every film is subject to taste. He backed up his opinion – would you please back up yours?

  9. Me says:

    Terrible review 🙂

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