It’s easy to feel blasé about the steady stream of action-oriented movies from the Far East, but this head-spinner from the director of the crunching Sympathy for Mr Vengeance is far, far too good to leave to the Asia Extreme crowd.
When we first meet businessman Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-Sik), he’s a drunken boor, though he’d doubtless sober up if he knew what was coming. Abducted by persons unknown, he’s held prisoner for 15 years, until he’s just as unexpectedly released. Still none the wiser, he falls into a relationship with a sushi-bar hostess, whereupon his captor contacts him by mobile and offers a deal: if he can work out why he was kidnapped in the first place, the villain will offer up his life—if not, the girl cops it.
For Oh Dae-Su, getting mad and getting even amount to virtually the same thing. The sequence where he rearranges some low-life’s dental work will doubtless attract over-excited attention, much like the jaw-dropping one-take hammer-wielding skirmish in a corridor. But the upfront mayhem shouldn’t be allowed to distract from the film’s emotional depth or indeed its brilliant lead performance. For the protagonist, vengeance is a voyage of discovery, yet his newfound propensity towards violence troubles him, and his burning desire to confront his secretive nemesis may be fuelled by lingering self-doubt that he deserved his fate. Whatever happens, he’ll never be the same man again.
Choi Min-Sik is in the Pacino or De Niro class, running the gamut from terrifying rage to abject degradation. The implausibilities in the plot melt away because we’re living the experience with him, thanks also in part to the bravura expressiveness of Park’s direction. Hitchcock and Fincher are reference points, but this combines visceral punch, a tortured humanity and even an underlying Korean political resonance given the weight of the past. Quite an achievement then, and well worthy of its Cannes prize.