If Cannes jury president Quentin Tarantino had got his way, this is the film that would have muscled past Fahrenheit 9/11 to scoop the Palme d'Or. Like Kill Bill, it's a rip-roaring rampage of revenge, bristling with violence, style and wrath. But unlike QT's pyrotechnic comic strip and Hollywood popcorn porn like Man On Fire, Old Boy warps the genre into something deeper, darker and infinitely more challenging: a tragic psycho-thriller where revenge is fatal and love is doomed.
You can't beat the set-up. Released from his cell as inexplicably as he was imprisoned, Dae-su's (Min-sik) unhinged from the off. And as he hooks up with coquettish sushi chef Mido (Kang Hye-jeong), the man's got just one thing holding his fractured mind together: finding out who robbed him of a life with his wife and daughter. And, having spent the last 15 years turning his body into a brutal weapon, he's not mucking around.
Riotous, bone-splitting scraps and some nasty DIY dentistry punctuate Dae-su's detective work, as director Park Chan-wook lenses the mayhem with bravura style. Split-screen, freeze-frames, roving dollies, frantic handheld - think David Fincher's sadistic Korean cousin. And while he stops well short of Takashi Miike's eccentricity, Chan-wook isn't shy of excess (Min-sik chomping down a live octopus), surreal humour (a CG arrow tracking the trajectory of a hammer) or adrenaline-pulsing set-pieces (Dae-su battering through a thug-filled corridor in a stunning tracking shot).
But it's just past the mid-point, when Dae-su tracks down his nemesis (the chilling, enigmatic Yu Ji-tae), that Old Boy really gets diabolical. Shifting gears from a whodunnit to a whydunnit, this smash-happy revenger gradually reveals itself as something truly nightmarish.
Slightly muddled? Slightly contrived? No argument about that. But with Chan-wook trapping us inside Dae-su's tortured perspective, Old Boy shocks and thrills in a manner more complex than any revenger Hollywood has managed since John Boorman's Point Blank. Don't believe us? Just wait for the last act's killer twist to unlatch like a trapdoor beneath your feet. Vengeance rarely gets this personal.