Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 27, 2005 4:32 pm 
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Revenge: a dish best eaten alive?

11 April 2005

In Park Chan-wook's Oldboy (which won the grand prize at Cannes in 2004 when Tarantino was at the helm), a rough-looking man is held by the cops for some hours after a drunk. A series of relentless jump-cuts show him misbehaving at the police station. Once bailed out, he suddenly disappears in a pour-down rain while his rescuer is in a phone booth. The next we know he's imprisoned in a tiny apartment-like jail cell, and is held there for….fifteen years! Again jump cuts take us through this experience, which includes pumped-in gas while he sleeps, self-tattoos of cross-hatching to remind himself of the years, a journal, a constant TV which is his only companion, imaginary swarms of insects, and personal martial-arts conditioning that includes punching the wall till his knuckles bleed.

Once released, having a taste for something other than the pot-stickers he was served all the time in his prison, our man stops at a sushi bar and asks for "something live." He's brought an octopus as big as two fists and he gobbles it -- live -- and passes out. The female sushi chef presiding at this event bonds with the man and they go looking for whoever imprisoned him and try to find out why. I forgot a man who jumps off the roof of the prison building before this: but nobody could keep track of all the hyper-kinetic, dark, grungy contents of 'Oldboy.' It's in Korean, by the way, and if you don't know Korean you may miss a bit of the dialog. It's got those subtitles that fade when the background's light, and they flick by pretty fast too.

What is clear is that as somebody taunts him, Oh Dae-Su's just in a larger prison when his captors let him out, and what he does is part of a maniacal scheme to do him far worse harm than mere physical confinement.

What's initially endearing about this accomplished but cartoon-like revenge-mystery action film, apart from Choi Min Sik's gonzo performance as Oh Dae-Su, the imprisoned man who turns sushi freak, is its obsessiveness, which Choi's intensity neatly underlines. The troubles begin when you realize that however maniacally determined Oh Dae-Su's pursuit of his tormentor and unraveling of his imprisonment's secrets are, it's all ultimately lost on us because it makes little logical, and even less emotional, sense. Or, where it does make sense, it's patently impossible.

Park Chan Wook is a clever and inventive filmmaker who like many of the other 'dark,' 'cool' filmmakers of today has a visual style that outstrips his ability to tell a story. Since you could have said that about The Big Sleep and many still do, it may be that critical head-shaking over 'Oldboy' will seem passé in time and the film will morph into a classic. It's been said already though that Park is pursuing cult status faster than he can keep up with himself.

The encrustation of the mechanical upon the living was Bergson's definition of the comic, and by that definition this movie should be a laugh riot. There's both elaborate visual trickery and intense real physicality -- witness Oh Dae-Su's consumption of the octopus. He really bites the thing's head off and chews on the still-writhing tentacles as they nervously coil round his cheek. The martial arts sequences are tricky and complicated; I doubt that the actor is doing all his stunts like Tony Ja in 'Ong-bak: Thai Warrior,' but his physicality is down to earth as he punches out one thug after another. No jumping, just punches and falls. But the images and their sequencing are most artfully manipulated. There's a sex scene, and an erotic scene, and a torture sequence involving dental extractions.

How Oh Dae-Su finds people and how people find Oh Dae-Su is pretty confused. There's a vague sense that those tormenting Oh Dae-Su are evil masterminds à la James Bond. They have gangster connections and there's a posh huge penthouse at the end. But our hero seems to have been held in a kind of rent-a-jail cell, and whoever ordered up this treatment was apparently connected with something more mundane than Goldfinger: simply a schoolmate who bears Oh Dae-Su an obscure grudge. When the school enemy appears, if I've got this right, he seems to be a decade or two Oh Dae-Su's junior. Does it matter? Well, cultists of the movie will want to explain everything. But not rest of us, because the people aren't real or specific enough for us to care. Choi Min Sik's a gnarly little dynamo (his wacko behavior fits better here than it did in the artistic biography Chihwaseon) and his nemesis is a tall, cool, godlike personage. That's the point. The contrast is enough.

Oldboy has hints of Tarantino and Tarantino's Asian martial arts sources, but although there's a lot of dialog, as far as one can tell the talk is very far from Pulp Fiction's priceless exchanges.

You think the idea's unique -- imagine being locked up for fifteen years without explanation -- but then you realize it's not only what happened to Victor Hugo's Jean Valjean, but essentially what happens to a lot of black men in America, only then it isn't the beginning of a hip nightmare film. The imprisonment of black men is the real tale of society's revenge on an undeserving minority, but Oldboy's maniacal and inexplicable personal revenge of one middle class man on another has no social significance; worse yet, it never acquires an emotional one.

Director Park Chan Wook is a director to reckon with -- some of Oldboy's sequences are hard to forget -- and he's found a worthy star in Choi Min Sik. But this disturbing, violent movie is clever without being intelligent. 7/10

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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