So, one of the most well known eastern horror movies lands on my doorstep for me to review. I was ecstatic. The word is this is one of the most potent movies in recent times. Good news is that it is, but there is one caveat with which I cannot reconcile myself. More on that later, though.
The plot of Old Boy is somewhat convoluted. It's a bit like 12 Monkeys in that it is only at the end do you understand what is going on with previously surreal nonsensical scenes suddenly making much more sense. Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) is kidnapped by persons unknown and imprisoned in an anonymous apartment with no window or contact with the outside world save an old TV set. Mentally tortured, hypnotised and fed the same food, Dae-su hatches a plan to escape his prison that takes him fifteen years to execute. When out, with only what he has learnt on TV for assistance, Dae-su seeks the truth: why was he imprisoned in the first place, what had he done and who had he become? The truth would have more consequences and dark secrets than he could imagine.
There is no denying that Old Boy is directed with astonishing skill. One tends to think of Tarantino and his blend of styles not normally associated with a certain genre. However, while Tarantino appears to be contrived and unoriginal with his “homages”, Chan-wook Park is anything but. Original, fresh and wholly his own style, he gives Old Boy a real sense of surreal oppression that draws the viewer in. Indeed by the final revelations we are as part of the movie as the onscreen characters. Editorially, cinematographically, directorially, any way you can think of, Old Boy is nigh on perfect. Even the rather long running time never seems past it's sell by date until the very end.
I suppose that Thriller is a good fit, technically, for Old Boy seeing as there is precious little actual up front horror content. Such is the otherworldly mise en scene, the inescapable predicament of the protagonist and the overpowering presence of Dae-su's tormentor, Old Boy is a horror movie more than anything else. Once that transition is made anything could happen with the story free to explore the less believable realms of reason. Basically, anything goes. From there you are only a hop skip and a jump before you get some truly wince-worthy images. It's not quite as bad as the pliers' scene in Dark Hours but there is some DIY dentistry and some odd use of scissors. However, and this is a big however, one scene completely wrecks this movie for me and I really can't get past it. It may be a cultural thing, and Korean movies did/do have a reputation for animal cruelty. Seeing it onscreen is a different matter entirely. At one point we see Dae-su eat a live octopus for no really good reason, should there ever be defendable reason. Sorry, but in my opinion, there is no way on this planet, no matter what the artistic intentions are, that a wholly intelligent animal like an octopus should be eaten alive for entertainment. If it weren't for this scene, this would get a whole hearted recommendation.