A film that has truly outstayed its welcome in pop culture and surface-level film discussion is Oldboy. Something so talked about and hyped up that you’d forgive me for not watching it sooner, because the amount of discussions I’ve seen on the film has basically detailed the plot start to finish without skipping a beat. I made the cardinal sin of not only watching the awful Spike Lee remake first, but also by just not bothering to watch the original Park Chan-wook apparent masterpiece, even though I’ve had it in my possession for quite some time. There was no way it could live up to the exceedingly high expectations I had plastered onto it, and for that, I can only apologise.
But I’m not fully to blame. Whilst Oldboy is most certainly a competently crafted thriller, it really doesn’t have much else going for it outside of an interesting set-up. A man kidnapped for fifteen years without rhyme or reason is suddenly released and begins to seek out those who captured him. Such a basic yet interesting premise, a resounding tale of revenge and the implications of getting your own back. This revenge tale is led by Choi Min-sik, who serves up an absolutely incredible performance as captured businessman Oh Dae-su. His nosedive into insanity and the subsequent desperation of his character arc is very nicely formed, thankfully at the centre of the film at almost every turn.
Dae-su is a flatlining character though, and for the few grimacing scenes of torture, elongated fight sequences and bittersweet revenge tale, there’s very little depth to the character. He’s hard to like, even if he is out for justice. No amount of great acting can fix this, with Min-sik working tirelessly to bring to life a character that doesn’t have enough depth to carry the film. Throwing in supporting characters doesn’t help either, provided that they’re either annoying or obsolete from the moment they appear on set. Lee Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae) is a serviceable villain at the best of times, muddled with forgettable tropes of villainous, shady characters. Ji-tae’s performance doesn’t provide us with anything all that interesting outside of the expectedly cold villainous tropes necessary to make Oldboy work.
Perhaps a more grounded take of this film is exactly what the discourse needed. A peppering of reality among the giddy freaks that praise this as the epitome of what it takes to make a resounding thriller. Popular culture and fan discussion have ruined just about any form of impact Oldboy could have potentially held, but after sitting through a story that struggles to keep itself consistent enough to be thoroughly engaging. Those that cling to Oldboy as a beacon of foreign thrillers are a strange bunch, and I feel inclined to dive deeper into Korean thriller films. The greatest praise I can give to Oldboy is that it has encouraged me to look further into the genre, to see whether or not there’s anything better than a slightly lukewarm thriller found near to the heart of film fans with a foundational taste in unconventional thrillers.