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Cannes Winner 'Oldboy': Vengeance That Hits Like a Hammer

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 8, 2005; Page C01

Imagine the following: You're a normal guy, just minding your business, and the life you've got going is nothing special, but you're pretty happy even if you're largely unselfconscious, you're not particularly sensitive and you like yourself better than anybody else.

One day, after a rough night, you're kidnapped. Ransom? Nah. Nobody who knows you has enough to pay any ransom or, even if they did, cares enough. So you sit for 15 years in a private jail disguised as a cheap hotel room. You never see another face, or hear a voice. The television becomes your life. When you get out, your wife has been murdered and you are wanted for it, and your daughter has disappeared.

Min-sik Choi tries to fend off a murderous bodyguard in the seriously violent "Oldboy." (Tartan Films)

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Brother, is that your problem?

I imagine you'd be plenty ticked off.

And so is Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) in Chan-wook Park's "Oldboy," a powerful and disturbing psychological drama from South Korea (and the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prize).

The movie isn't pretty. It's basically a straight-on examination of this situation, without much in the way of overwrought style. Its primary virtue is its intensity as it stays close on Oh all the way through, as he struggles to find out what happened to him, why it happened and who's responsible. Though shot, of course, in Seoul, it has a kind of grunge New York look, a palette consisting of the crummy green and damp gray of winter in a big, unfriendly town. And Oh isn't really heroic; he's certainly no Count of Monte Cristo, a fencer with extraordinary charm and looks, but pretty much a schmo who rages and cries and despairs over his long, unjust incarceration, until he finally starts working out, and trains himself to become a human weapon of vengeance.

But again, the idealized is ignored by director Park. When Oh finally discovers the prison where he spent all those years, and takes his revenge, it's no martial arts fantasy but a portrait of a crazed man in the fight of his life armed with the least elegant of all devices, a hammer. So the violence is squalid and you're not seeing flying spin kicks and dragon fist punches with elaborate soundtracks of mayhem behind them; it looks like a pig pile in a sewer, not a ballet.

And, more, it's not just violence fueled by simple vengeance. As it wends along, "Oldboy" keeps finding new directions to explore. Oh meets a sushi chef; he impresses her by -- well, let's just say the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Octopoids will be picketing most screenings.

Then there's a very cool industrial magnate who takes a cruel though distant interest in Oh that leads our hero to track his life back to a seemingly inconsequential sloppiness that had massive repercussions.

In the end, the movie seems to be saying: Everything counts. It doesn't view Oh as a victim and his life as a horror of exploitation. What happens happens. And it doesn't go in for the nonsense that whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Its magnificence is that it takes itself dead serious. It's not entertainment, but it's sure a piece of toughness.

Oldboy (120 minutes, at the Landmark E Street) is rated R for extreme violence, including some tooth stuff that you won't forget for a month.

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