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'Oldboy's' Powerful Hold

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 8, 2005; Page WE45

CALL ME a wimp but I wince at involuntary tooth extraction with a hammer. And although I can slurp sushi with the best of them, I tend to cringe when someone gnaws a live octopus while the poor creature writhes and flails away.

You'll get to see these and other shocking spectacles (there's even worse to come) in "Oldboy," a Korean movie that took the Grand Jury prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival. When I first saw Park Chanwook's film at the fest, it was hard to see beyond, well, those extracted teeth -- lying in a little pile like so much bloody candy corn. But after a second, more recent viewing, a terrific big picture emerges. The violence remains appalling, but it's an essential element in this brutally inspired mystery. The low-tech dentistry, the masticated octopod, they're part of the modern hell in which a Korean businessman finds himself.

Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-Sik) is held captive for 15 years in the brutally intense Korean film "Oldboy." (Tartan Film)

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He's Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-Sik), and he has just been bailed out of jail for drunken assault. But he stumbles into something far worse. Rendered unconscious, and not sure how that happened, he wakes up in an apartment from which he cannot escape. Food is handed to him through a metal opening. No one explains why he is there or how long he'll stay. Oh has no idea who is behind it.

The hours lead to days. Then weeks. Then years -- 15 of them.

What Oh goes through during this period of captivity, and what he does to get out, are part of the movie's unfolding mysteries. His unknown captor or captors have left him a television, which becomes the Rip Van Winkle lifeline to the society he's left. He learns martial arts, among many things. And more tragically, he learns that his wife has been killed and he's the main suspect. What can he do? What if he punches through the wall and finds himself on the 52nd floor of a building?

When circumstances lead to an escape, Oh is almost dementedly focused on vengeance. Every thought, gesture and action are directed toward finding who is behind this torture.

"Oldboy," which might have won the Golden Palm at Cannes last year (jury chairman Quentin Tarantino was hot for it to win but didn't prevail) but for a political juggernaut called "Fahrenheit 9/11," tantalizes and tortures you as it lures you into its mysterious vortex. You die from what you see and from what you don't know. And it takes looking beyond the violence to realize the power of Choi's performance. (He bears a certain resemblance to actor Gary Oldman.) He takes us through an often excruciating journey with an arsenal of emotions including half-insane glee, unmitigating grief and fury. But after he meets a radiant young woman named Mido (Gang Hye-Jung), who elects to help him in his quest, those dark emotions evolve into a desperate serenity. There is a conclusion to all this, an existential punch line that explains everything in a climactic pileup of melodramatic detail. But whatever you make of that, you will surely leave this movie shocked, shaken and surprisingly moved. And definitely stuck on that poor octopus.

OLDBOY (R, 120 minutes) -- Contains disturbing violence and scenes of torture, sexual content and much obscenity. In Korean with English subtitles. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.

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