Herald rating: * * * *

Revenge might be a dish best served cold. But in Oldboy - a bizarre, brutal but oddly touching Korean thriller which won Cannes' second prize in 2003 - vengeance also comes with a entree of live, squirming octopus.

Spectacularly masticating his way through the mollusc is Oh Dae-su, a man we first meet 15 years earlier as he is kidnapped and imprisoned.

Freed from his mysterious lengthy solitary confinement, he demands "something alive" at the first restaurant he stumbles into. Cue very big mouthful of squirming tentacles.

Arguably the octopus gets off relatively lightly in a film in which also has a thing for claw hammers v teeth and tongues v scissors among its nastier moments. That Cannes prize? Well, that was the year Quentin Tarantino was head of the jury. He's obviously a big seafood fan too.

But what makes Oldboy as riveting and grimly funny as it is occasionally sadistic is its story of Oh, a man who has life stolen from him, and the unnerving psychological portrait it paints of a man driven beyond desperation.

Stylistically, it's like nothing around, though draw a line drawn from Sam Peckinpah films like Straw Dogs and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, through John Woo's hardboiled Hong Kong thrillers with a nod to linear narrative-puzzlers like Memento and you might end up somewhere near Oldboy territory.

It's little wonder that Park, whose prior film was Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, is getting the sort of following Woo had before heading stateside.

His Oldboy might well be a contrived melodrama with its own highly developed sense of the absurd and gruesome. But there's barely a predictable moment in it after drunken salaryman Oh is spirited off the streets of Seoul and kept confined to a hotel room-cum-cell for 15 years, with only fried noodles for nourishment, and television from which he learns he's been framed for his wife's murder.

One day Oh's Kafkaesque existence is shattered when he finds himself out in the outside world, mad as hell and possessing a brutal haircut - and that raging appetite.

But his mystery captor is still pulling the strings and gives Oh five days to figure out his identity and the reason for his imprisonment. He might be out but he's not yet free. The restaurant's chef, Mido (Gang), takes pity on him and endangers herself as she takes him in.

As the film moves towards its inevitably bloody showdown its narrative becomes increasingly perplexing and convoluted, squandering some of the emotional punch it has built up earlier.

Still, it closes with some lovely scenery - shot in New Zealand snow country doubling for an unseasonal Korea.

Afterwards it's hard to shake Oldboy's mix of perverse nightmare and black comedy, or the power of veteran Korean actor Choi's performance. He's compelling whether he's playing a modern Asian Count of Monte Cristo taking on a hallway full of henchmen armed only with a hammer, or chowing down in what you can only hope was a one-take scene.

No, Oldboy is not for the faint of stomach, or heart. But you probably won't see as daring or devastating a thriller until Park makes another one. 

CAST: Choi Min-sik, Gang Hye-jung, Yoo Ji-tae
DIRECTOR: Park Chanwook
RATING: R18 (violence, offensive language, sex scenes)
RUNNING TIME: 120 mins
SCREENING: Advance screenings Rialto this weekend; opens Thursday