Despite visuals, you can’t teach an Oldboy new tricks

By Matt Johnston

When the chips are down, thrillers succeed or fail on atmosphere. In the absence of the music, intensity, and darkness of a theater, plotlines that were once horrifying become comical and formulaic. What really happens in a thriller? (1) Things jump out of the dark. (2) People are forced to do horrible things in order to survive. (3) Bloody body parts are left lying around, often as a result of (1) and/or (2).

These are dull instruments for holding my interest, so it was with great anticipation that I approached Oldboy, a stylish Korean thriller that has been bouncing around various film circuits for over a year, but has just recently found a single theater in Chicago to screen it (Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema). It arrives here accompanied by enormous praise and Internet cult status. One look at the poster tells you that this is not a cheery film: A man and a woman wander through a web of neon signs in the type of dark, modernized world that made Blade Runner so visually hypnotic.

Thus, I am shocked to report that Oldboy’s atmosphere has far more in common with Amélie’s than Blade Runner’s. We are treated to a mellow score including Vivaldi’s Winter, cinematography that focuses on pastels, and scenes that take place almost entirely on sunny days. An exploration of urban wasteland this is not. Yet, until a sequel reveals that sweet Amélie Poulain—in addition to cheerfully helping strangers—enjoyed eating live octopi, pulling teeth out with a hammer, and severing various appendages (including hands and tongues), the comparison between the two films is going to have to stop there. When Amélie 2: Sadistic Killer Bitch does hit theaters, though, viewers of this film will know exactly what to expect.

Oldboy follows the story of Dae-Su Oh (Min-sik Choi), a cheery middle-aged man who one day finds himself in a locked hotel room receiving food through a slot in the door. Sometimes gas is released that knocks him out cold, allowing his captures to cut his hair, clean up, and remove fingerprinted items for placement at the scene of his wife’s murder. Mostly he watches television and thus learns of fugitive status. As the years pass, he also finds time to chisel through the wall and tone up for the inevitable showdown with his yet-unknown captors.

Fifteen years after his imprisonment, he wakes up outside, inexplicably free. He wanders around, finds a sushi bar, and passes out. This time he wakes up in the apartment of Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang), the beautiful sushi chef. There is some initial sexual tension (he tries to rape her while she uses the bathroom), but eventually things settle down—to the extent that this film allows anything to settle down. The rest of the film follows Dae-Su and Mi-do’s quest to track down his captors. He wants to know why he, of all people, was trapped in a room for 15 years. At one point he is preparing to torture information out of his nemesis, only to withdraw when his nemesis threatens to commit suicide. Dae-Su wants revenge, yes, but more than that, he wants information. The curiosity that has built in his head for a decade and a half will not allow him to simply wipe out his enemies.

Again, unless you are hunched over this review, enthralled at the plight of poor Dae-Su and Mi-do, you know that atmosphere is everything. This review has none. The question, then, is whether or not Oldboy does—whether or not it presents its story and characters in a way that holds our interest. The answer is mostly yes. For the first two-thirds of the film, the bright setting and mellow music work well as an ironic contrast to the horrific violence and emotional manipulation taking place on screen.

Dae-su’s nemesis is, we learn, a wealthy individual who plays his games somewhat out of deep anger, but much more out of boredom with his wealth and time. He is a restless sadist. I suspect that even if he did not have the type of unspeakable secrets that are ubiquitous at the end of any thriller, he might torture middle-aged businessmen for kicks. The film’s avoidance of darkness and its cheeky sense of humor during fight scenes go a long way in bringing out the amorality of these modern characters.

That said, the ending simply does not work. I do not mean that the way I would with a traditional drama. With relatively little documentation of wealthy playboys who use their spare time and money to concoct and carry out devilish schemes, many thrillers must trespass into the unbelievable to achieve their nightmarish goals. I am of the firm opinion that Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, and dozens of other thrillers did work, even though their plots do not pass the laugh test outside of the darkened theater.

But Oldboy’s last third did not have me engrossed. Although the unconventionally light atmosphere was initially effective, it failed to cover the holes in the ending even as they unfolded. Any movie with mystery or suspense requires an investment of attention. We follow details we do not understand because we expect to be rewarded with a satisfying explanation and conclusion at a later time. Oldboy doesn’t really supply either. Or, more precisely, it doesn’t mask its unbelievable aspects in enough atmosphere and character development to make the ending work. An investment of two confused hours gives only questionable returns.

Still, I was glad to have seen this movie. It was an interesting and visually captivating ride while it lasted. It is not for the weak-stomached: I wasn’t kidding about pulling out teeth with a hammer. But if you enjoy rough thrillers and can deal with feeling slightly cheated by an ending, this isn’t a poor choice at all.