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Oh Dae-su is an ordinary guy. A bit of a drunk and a loudmouth maybe, but nothing so exceptional as to warrant his being abducted and imprisoned with no explanation whatsoever as to why. Never seeing his captors, he spends his time working out and watching television, whereby he learns that he is being sought for the murder of his wife, leaving their infant daughter an orphan.

After 15 years and having almost made a hole through which to escape, Shawshank Redemption style, Dae-su wakes up to find himself free - free to seek answers and revenge.

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Visiting a sushi restaurant he meets a young woman named Mido, who agrees to help him, and, in short order, becomes his lover. Their investigations lead him to a man named Lee Woo-jin.

Sure enough, it all proves too easy: Yes, Dae-so can kill Woo-jin, but then he'll never know why he was imprisoned, nor why he was released. Woo-jin thus makes a bargain: If Dae-su can discover the reason within five days then he will kill himself; if not then Mido's life is forfeit. Desperate to know, Dae-su accepts...

The second installment of Park Chan-wook's projected revenge trilogy follows on the heels of last year's Sympathy For Mr Vengeance, but surpasses it in every respect, fully justifying its Grand Prix at Cannes - and, one is tempted to say, also surpassing Michael Moore's Palm D'Or winning Fahrenheit 9/11 in cinematic accomplishment, if not topicality and polemic.

As it is, one is initially tempted to read in a specifically political Korean subtext, remembering those kidnapped and held for years by the North, though the universaility of Dae-su's predicament - what would you do in a similar situation? - soon takes us on a different track from previous Korean entries such as Kang Je-gyu's Shiri (Southern cop chases Northern trained assassin with whom he has fallen in love) and Park's own earlier breakthrough Joint Security Area (Southern cop investigates a double murder in the no-mans land between the two Koreas and finds the Northern prime suspect just a touch too obvious).

But if the influences and references are external, with the main set up coming over as a cross between David Fincher's Se7en and The Game and George Sluzier's Spoorloos/The Vanishing and the more outre moments, such as Dae-su's chowing down on a live squid, or extracting vengeance and teeth with a claw hammer - one would wager the viewer will never be able to listen to The Four Seasons in quite the same way again here - reminiscent of Japanese bad boy Takashi Miike's Audition and Ichi The Killer (co-incidentally also inspired by a Japanese manga), one never gets the feeling that Park is doing the rip-off game.

Rather, he has a distinctive voice and style of his own, where potentially showy techniques - split screen, handheld, freeze-frame, elegant tracks and pans - are deployed in the service of the story, rather than as mere ends in themselves, and where little touches - note, for instance, the angel wings Dae-su buys as a present for his young daughter on the night of his abduction and the ringing of bells, perhaps as a nod to It's A Wonderful Life and its "every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings" refrain by way of Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me style weird - will undoubtedly reward repeat viewings.

With a compelling central performance from Choi Min-sik, more than able support from the lovely Gang Hye-jung and the suitably enigmatic Yoo Ji-tae, quality production design and cinematography and an eclectic and effective score, the only quibble one really has is with the slightly too contrived set-up: a film like Angel Heart can get away with implausibilities, thanks to the presence of an overtly supernatural villain - you can assume that the devil can work a little miracle as and when. Woo-jin, however, is merely a diabolical Dr Evil-style mastermind, resulting in that lingering sense of "but what about..." as the film reaches its double-whammy of denouements.

As a dark, twisted and intelligent piece of genre filmmaking - one almost wants to label it as postmodern Greek tragedy - Old Boy is going to be hard to beat.

Reviewed on: 18 Aug 2004
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A revenge drama from South Korea creates a mystery for the long term prisoner who is released. Now out to own as part of the box set.
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Read more Oldboy reviews:

Iain Macleod *****
Jennie Kermode ****

Director: Park Chan-wook

Writer: Hwang Jo-yun, Lim Joon-hyung, Park Chan-wook, Tsuchiya Garon, Minegishi Nobuaki

Starring: Choi Min-sik, Yoo Ji-tae, Kang Hye-jung, Chi Dae-han, Oh Dal-su, Kim Byoung-ok, Lee Seung-shin, Yoon Jin-seo, Lee Dae-yun, Oh Gwang-rok

Year: 2004

Runtime: 120 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: South Korea

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The Vengeance Trilogy