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DVD Review: "Old Boy" Is Twisted, But Powerful

Sarah Parvini |
October 29, 2012 | 4:08 p.m. PDT

Senior News Editor


Yoo Ji-tae as Lee Woo-jin, the film's calm, collected yet entirely insane antagonist.
Yoo Ji-tae as Lee Woo-jin, the film's calm, collected yet entirely insane antagonist.

“Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone.” 

This adage is something to chew on as you delve into the deeply sadistic psyche of Park Chan-wook’s “Old Boy,” a disturbing-yet-captivating thriller that takes place in South Korea. 

Imagine this: You’re an average, albeit obnoxious, man who has just been bailed out of jail by your best friend. You lead a fairly normal life, despite the fact that you are a bit self-involved and aren’t particularly caring toward others.  

After making quite the exit when your friend picks you up from the station, you head home, momentarily stepping out of the pouring rain to call your little girl and tell her you will be back in time for her birthday—but when your best friend takes the phone to say hello, you disappear. You’re abducted, with no way to be bailed out this time. 

Instead, you sit in a prison fashioned to look like a small hotel room. There are no other people around, aside from the ones who come to groom you occasionally or to feed you. An eerie painting leers at you, toying with your increasingly fragile mind.

This is your life for 15 years. You are alone, with only the TV set to be your companion, clock and calendar.

Armed with your anger, memories and, sometimes, a hammer, you set out to find your captor. The caveat? You have to do it in five days. 

The genius of this film lies not in its ability to terrify the viewer, or in a particularly complex plot, but rather in the way it is able to manipulate the audience into commiserating with both the anti-hero protagonist, Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), and the twisted antagonist, Lee Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae). 

Oh Dae-su finds himself at a sushi bar the night of his release. There, he befriends a beautiful sushi chef, Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong), who takes a shine to him. 

What follows is perhaps one of the most disturbing scenes in the film: Dae-su—in a whirlwind of self-loathing and despair—tells Mi-do he wants to eat something alive. She brings him an octopus and he shoves it into his mouth, swallowing as each tentacle slithers across his face, the creature writhing as he rips it apart. 

Choi’s impeccable acting, his gaunt look and pained expressions drive the moment home just as he passes out from the unconventional dining experience. The twisted grin and off-beat laugh he employs throughout the film serve as a constant, nagging reminder to laugh rather than to weep. 

The scene is a nod to the nihilism David Fincher (and therefore, Chuck Palahniuk) is known for—think “I felt like destroying something beautiful,” á la “Fight Club.” In his darkest hour, Dae-su wants to show the world what he is capable of; he wants to take in the life he’s lost. 

He sets off to find his torturer the next day, taking out hordes of underlings in his quest for revenge. He rips out teeth, hammers in faces and bashes skulls, all in a well-orchestrated symphony of destruction shot in profile, like a sick version of a 1980s side-scroll video game. 

Yet despite this violence, his opponent, Lee, is unfazed and cold as steel (a testament to Yoo’s acting). He warns Dae-su that if he doesn’t hurry and solve the riddle of his captivity, he will kill himself. But when the answer to his 15-year question comes, it doesn’t go down easy. This isn’t a run-of-the-mill hit to ruin a man’s life—no, this is deep-seated revenge that has had time to fester and brew for decades. 

While filled with bloodshed and horror, “Old Boy” is interesting to watch at the basest level. Park’s film is beautifully composed, with an artistic and calculated mise en scene the likes of which Kubrick, Tarantino, or even Hitchcock, would create (it’s no surprise that the film won Grand Prize at Cannes Film Festival). 

His style may not be original, but it is to Park’s credit that he takes the greatest film auteurs into consideration in his cinematography. 

With its violence, sadism and sexuality, it’s clear that this is a film that wouldn’t do well in U.S. studios or the American box office. For all his blood and gore, Tarantino doesn’t cross the line into purely sickening; while Hitchcock thrived off the fragmented psyche, he never crossed the line into sexual depravity (this begs the question: Will the American remake do “Old Boy” justice?). 

While not without it flaws, “Old Boy” is a fantastic piece of foreign cinema that leaves the audience startled, a little grossed out and admittedly, slightly confused. What happens at the end of the film is up to the viewer decide, much like the heavily debated conclusion to "Inception." 

If there is one thing to take in from this gut-wrenching work of art, it’s this: “Be it a rock or a grain of sand, in water they sink as the same." 

Everything counts.


Reach Senior News Editor Sarah Parvini here. Follow her on Twitter.



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