Chan-wook Park’s breakthrough film is a psychological thriller with elements of pure horror. A man is taken and kept in solitary confinement for 15 years for an unknown crime. This mental ordeal hardens his mind to search for revenge at all costs.
The cinematography is more like a comic book than a film, meaning that, despite being often shockingly violent, the film retains an enjoyable and artistic detachment from the events it portrays. Reality and memory are often intertwined into synthesised sequences. Occasionally the camera merges images of a past and future self even within a shot. The result is an entirely engaging form of imagery which expresses itself equally in dialogue or, more often, in silence.
From a story-telling perspective this script leaves no time to take a breath, there is a twist around every corner and the layers of imagery and fear built up in the short prologue serve to reinforce this tension. Yet it also lessens the sensation of being bombarded by a ceaseless plot machine as every new development coheres and fits perfectly into a greater image.
Both Min-sik Choi and Ji-tae Yu give excellent performances as prisoner and imprisoner respectively. While it appears that they are beings of hatred, moved only by a desire for pain and vengeance it becomes clear that both have been following a deep, devoted love. The film delivers a counterintuitive message for one framed in violence. These same themes recur in Park’s most recent film Stoker, both films explore the boundaries that society places on love. In Oldboy these feelings have been corrupted over time to make way for the twisted relationships which take their place. The film demonstrates the potentially horrifying power of love as a driving force.