In the graphic, gory, often perverse horror sub-genre called “J-Horror” (short for Japanese horror), director Chan-wook Park’s 2003 film “Oldboy” traded traditional scares for taboo-embracing twists — delivering controversy and cross-over success with mainstream audiences. Never mind that Park is Korean. I guess the term “K-Horror” never really caught on. Nonetheless, with Oldboy, Park got peoples’ attention.
Set in an unnamed present-day Asian metropolis, the film which Park also co-wrote follows Dae-su Oh (played by veteran actor Min-sik Choi) who is locked away for 15 years — without explanation or any substantive human contact. When he finally escapes, he’s nearly 50. He’s insane, desocialized and borderline-suicidal. He’s taken in by Mi-do, a lonely 20-something sushi chef (played by Hye-jeong Kang), who falls for him. Pursued by Dae-su’s former captors, the two misfit lovers discover clues that lead them back to Dae-su’s prep-school days, an incestuous affair that lead to a young girl’s suicide and a mystery that, once solved, will destroy everything Dae-su held precious.
Park’s filmmaking is effortlessly stylized. Think of the urban grit that gave 70s films like “The French Connection” their dark edge. Park’s environments could be from those same locations, only years later and with more neon.
Along with lead bad guy, Woo-jin Lee (played by Ji-tae Yu), the actors turn in great (and disturbing) performances in a thriller designed to shock. Is it sick? Yes. But it’s also one of the freshest films released in the early 2000s.
It’s always interesting to see how a filmmaker will handle controversial subject matter or topics. Do they glorify or sensualize immoral or debasing acts? Do they condemn them? Or do they show them in a way that leaves the judgment to the audience? In this case, Park chooses the latter of the three — perhaps giving us the most perverse twist of all.
Oldboy is currently available on DVD or on your favorite streaming service. I guess you could say it’s is a family film. But it’s not a family you’d want to be a part of. So, rent it, watch it, but put the kids to bed first.