Dir: Park Chan-Wook. Korea. 2003. 135 mins (approx)
Director Park Chan-Wook helped Korean cinema break into a front of mind position with international distributors with his first film Joint Security Area, a tense stand-off on the North-South Korean border. He showed a darker, edgier side with Sympathy For Mr Vengeance, a biting revenge drama where at least two characters were candidates for the title role.
By turns narratively creative, visually inventive and gut-wrenchingly brutal, Old Boy is a step up into a different league. Outings at the top echelons of the festival circuit seem a certainty and, for brave distributors able to stomach the violence and incest themes, powerful audience reactions seem likely.
From the opening shots, the film's title would appear to refer to the stretched and wretched face of Oh Dae-Su (Failan and Chiwaseon-star Choi), an ageless scarecrow figure involved in a rooftop tussle. He is rapidly revealed as having been locked up in a weird kind of personal prison for 15 years.
His release sparks a tortuous search for his captor and for the reason that he was locked up. The chase is at once internet-savvy, back-street grungy and bone-splintering. When Oh uncovers his nemesis, it becomes clear that "old boy" refers to a former schoolmate Lee Woo-Jin (Yu Ji-Tae), now a penthouse-dwelling tyrant who feels that years ago he was wronged by Oh spreading rumours about his dead sister.
In a move reminiscent of sci-fi adventures or David Fincher's The Game, the meetings shift the story in a new direction. Lee tells Oh that he should be searching for the answer, not to the question why he was locked up in the first place, but why he had now been released. As he searches, Oh is played by Lee like a lab rat in a maze; there are bugs in his shoes, sleeping gas in his bolt-hole and allies who are eliminated. Crucially too there is a younger lover, who may neither quite be who she seems, nor quite be in control of her own emotions.
Park carefully unwraps his mystery with a cinematic precision akin to Fincher's Seven and a blind, driving bloodlust close to his own Sympathy. Stunningly, he reaches into a toolbox of cinematic devices ranging from deft cutaways and narrative loops to swirling clock motifs and full-frame images of stunning interiors. But he also indulges in the downright cruel: teeth are pulled, knuckles are ground down to the bone and tattoos are self-inflicted. At one stage a large octopus is chomped, live and resisting.
The nastiest piece of torture - and the film's essential genius - however, is mental abuse. Oh is made to relive a mirror of the lashing that Lee suffered from Oh's tongue. Sales agent Cineclick Asia reckons that Old Boy has top-level remake potential and is understood to have screened the film for David Lynch as a possible director. But to sanitise the English version by completely excising the incest device in order to arrive at studio acceptability would be the cruellest cut of all.
Prod co: Show East
Exec prod: Kim Jang-wook
Prod: Kim Dong-joo
Int'l sales: Cineclick Asia
Scr: Hwang Jo-yun, Lim Jun-hyung, Park Chan-wook
Cinematography: Chung Chung-hoon
Music: Cho Young-wuk
Ed: Kim Sang-bum
Prod des: Yoo Seong-hee
Main cast: Choi Min-sik, Yu Ji-tae, Kang Hye-jeong