The film contains all the ingredients of a conventional suspense-thriller. But what makes it outstanding is its exploration of complex human relations which were formed under exacting circumstances. The set-piece elements of crime and intrigue easily get the audience hooked. But for the discerning viewer, there is also much to be appreciated in the unfolding human drama. Even within the first 10-15 minutes of the film’s beginning, one can sense these two intertwined dimensions to the film. For movie buffs tired of watching conventional Hollywood crime-thrillers, Oldboy attempts a refreshing reinvention of the genre.
The plot is so constructed to create the maximum intrigue at the start of the film and thereby retain viewer attention. The 15-year long custody of Dae-su is the pivot around which the whole narrative evolves. Yet, where Oldboy exceeds the conventional genre is in how it beautifully illustrates the relationship between Dae-su and Mi-do (the young chef). The emotions and frustrations of a man deprived of intimate human contact for 15 years is brought to bear on their relationship. It does not surprise the audience that Dae-su, despite his growing attraction toward Mi-do, actually tries to sexually assault her. Equally well-crafted is Mi-do’s response of compassion and empathy. She displays great maturity and deep cognizance of the mental state of her future lover.
Woo-jin, despite being the apparent villain in the plot, has a method to his madness. Woo-jin’s inhumane (bordering of sadism) treatment of Dae-su, is to avenge the induced suicide of his sister Soo-ah (for which he rightly holds Dae-su responsible). These rich dimensions of human relationship are what make Oldboy standout from mainstream fares from the genre.
The spirit of inventiveness is also witnessed in how the director uses sound and music to complement the drama. Indeed the original soundtrack by Jo Yeong-wook endeavors to capture the grand theme of the film. Besides, the music cues appearing during the narrative is brief and to the point. In a veiled tribute to film noir genre of films, to which Oldboy gives a modern aesthetic, all the music cues are titled after film noir classics. For example, they go by names like The Count of Monte Cristo, Jailhouse Rock, Room at the Top, Dressed to Kill, etc. Moreover, they are carefully designed to accentuate the prevailing mood or drama in a particular scene. Whether it is action sequences of jail-break or combat, or the romantic/emotional ones, the role of music is subordinated to the imperatives of story-telling.