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Hammer Time: Choi Min-sik seeks his revenge by performing extreme makeovers on all who wronged him in 'Oldboy.'

Hardware Wars

Park Chan-wook's cult revenge thriller 'Oldboy' cuts closer to the bone than 'Saw'

By Richard von Busack

THE KOREAN revenge thriller Oldboy is currently running at 93 on the list of the top 250 films on the Internet Movie Database. Even before it opens in the smaller cities, it is already in preproduction for an 2006 English remake (Justin Lin, who did Shopping for Fangs, is slated to direct). Fans are intoning the movie's punch line, "Laugh, and the world laughs with you; cry, and you cry alone," as if this Joey Bishop-worthy motto was a Zen koan.

Despite the inevitable disappointment of overrating, Park Chan-wook's take on The Count of Monte Cristo is a novel addition to the annals of savage cinema, distinguishing itself with a terrific sex scene (which comes at the end, so stick with it), as well as a torture scene that tops Laurence Olivier's "Is it safe?" routine in Marathon Man. Even the finale in snow country might be considered as a particularly dry and depraved satire of Confucian filial obedience—or it would if Park didn't seem to consider it a beautiful instance of perfect love. Oldboy's softer side is demonstrated in its score of symphonic waltzes, such as you'd expect from a Merchant-Ivory adaptation. This is not the kind of music that ordinarily accompanies a film in which an anti-hero pries out a villain's teeth with the curved end of a claw hammer.

One night on his way home to his wife and child, a Korean salaryman called Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) gets very, very drunk and obnoxious. He is abducted and held in a private jail for 15 years. The dungeon is a cross between a David Fincher-decorated Best Western motel and that seaside village Patrick McGoohan could never get out of in The Prisoner (as in that case, the guards likewise control him with drugged gas). By building up his muscles and his knuckles, he becomes a dangerous killing machine. Released as mysteriously as he was captured, Oh zeroes in on a sushi bar where Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong) is working. The girl—probably attracted by the way Oh geeks a live octopus—adopts him and takes him home. It's all too sweet, and Oh rightly smells a rat.

Choi's rubbery pale face and bag-lined red eyes resemble Vincent Price in his mask as Dr. Phibes. His matted hair and lunatic smile make Benicio del Toro look like a Presbyterian minister by comparison. If Choi weren't so believably nuts, Park's film wouldn't be as credible. Oldboy far surpasses the similar Saw with superior editing and some of the boldest use of split-screen since the heyday of Brian De Palma. A sequence at a boarding school—the title is British slang meaning "alumnus"—turns into an Escher-like maze when Park's camera leaps from staircase to staircase. One sequence, which must have been a real bastard to film, is a 2 1/2-minute long, one-take hallway fight: Oh, armed with his trusty claw hammer, punishes a stick-wielding mob. The camera, at a safe distance, swivels slightly from side to side to keep Oh in the center. At the exact opposite of the balletic, smash-cut fight scene, this is so old it's new, and more vicious than anything in Sin City.

Oldboy (R; 120 min.), directed by Park Chan-wook, written by Hwang Jo-yun, Lim Chun-hyeong, Tsuchiya Garon and Park Chan-Wook, photographed by Jeong Jeong-hun and starring Choi Min-Sik, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the April 13-19, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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