If revenge is a dish best served cold, then Park Chan-wook's deliriously unhinged Oldboy is an unthawed Hungry Man TV dinner. When Quentin Tarantino led a Cannes jury into awarding the Grand Jury Prize to Oldboy last year, he no doubt measured it against his own revenge epic Kill Bill, and he must have marveled at its comparative extremity. In order for revenge to be orchestrated on this scale, it has to be a full-time obsession, employing bottomless resources, a staff of dedicated minions, and a few decades of patience. But unlike Kill Bill, which is upfront about why "The Bride" goes on a tear, Park holds off on revealing the true reasons behind the cruel plotting; he slowly amplifies the tension until the payoff stings like the snap of a rubber band. It's hard to make an argument for Oldboy based on anything other than pure cinematics, but when the style speaks this loudly, it's an argument worth making.
With a wild-eyed intensity that would seem over the top in any other film, Choi Min-sik stars as an ordinary Seoul businessman who wakes up from a drunken bender to find himself locked up in a mysterious apartment for reasons unknown. Weeks and months pass without any explanation, and he soon resigns himself to long days in front of the television set and a diet of fried pot-stickers shoved through a slat on the door. After 15 years ("It felt like home after 11," he says later), Choi is unexpectedly released onto a grass-covered rooftop and given a cell phone and a wallet full of cash, but the reasons for his liberation are just as vexing as the reasons for his incarceration, and he should certainly know that he's not truly free. Meanwhile, he befriends a pretty young sushi chef (Gang Hye-jung) with a familiar face. Before long, Choi's real nemesis surfaces in the form of a wealthy former high-school chum (Yoo Ji-tae) who seeks to punish Choi for an incident he barely remembers.
Part of the current vanguard of extreme Korean cinema, Park (Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance) marries the vibrant style of the Hong Kong action scene to the disturbing psychosexual currents running through many new films from his native country. The result is a powerfully visceral experience that justifies itself almost entirely on surface chops, with striking color composition and a complex sound design that elevates the story to an operatic scale. When the shoe finally drops on the revenge plot, the consequences for Choi are so outrageously elaborate and cruel that the audacity is almost breathtaking. Somewhere behind the camera, Park is grinning.