dir: Chan-wook Park
[img_assist|nid=1024|title=Crazy man and a hammer. Winning combination|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=286]
What a wonderfully keen film this is that no-one will get to see. I mean honestly: who goes to see Korean films at the cinema? They’re hardly hot ticket items.
You don’t see people selling their own or someone else’s organs or offering oral favours for the honour of getting to see a Korean film, good or otherwise. Maven of the multiplexes that I am, doyen of the drive-in, still I can honestly count the amount of Korean films that I’ve seen on one hand.
People generally say that and it’s hyperbole, but I actually mean that I’ve only ever seen five Korean films in my life: Bichunmoo (which was fairly mediocre), Musa the Warrior, (which was beyond mediocre), Volcano High (which I love, despite its abject madness), The Isle (which has one of the nastiest scenes I’ve ever seen in any film or in real life) and Oldboy. Without a doubt Oldboy is the absolute greatest movie I’ve ever seen. From Korea, that is.
I don’t know enough about Korean culture to understand their cinema, which is to say that the way I generally get to ‘know’ about a culture is from their cinema, and if I haven’t seen enough of a culture’s films then I tend to know fuck-all about their people.
I delude myself into thinking that I have some greater understanding of Chinese and Japanese culture because I’ve seen so goddamn many of their movies and read so much about them through their fiction and their media. It hardly seems like a credible way in which to get to know a place, but honestly, how else is it supposed to be done? Apart from actually travelling there of course. That’s for people with more money and courage than myself, I’m sorry to say.
In theory at least if I get to see enough of a country’s movies, I get a sense of what the country’s cinema reflects in terms of a nation’s psyche: what are their hopes, fears, dreams, aspirations, nightmares, turn-ons, turn-offs, stroke material etc? At the risk of getting wankier than I usually do, anyone who obsesses over pop culture of this or any other nation knows how much all the crap and kitsch reveals about people and a place.
I’m still at the courtship phase with Korea, since I haven’t known her that long, so I’m barely at the stage where I can presume to squeeze certain soft parts of her anatomy and think about unzipping stuff. From what I’ve seen in Oldboy, she’s a twisted freak, but she’s got much to give and I’ve got lots to learn.
Oldboy is written about in the review mags and papers as a revenge epic, and that’s not entirely inaccurate, but the mistake that people will make is the second they hear of ‘revenge’ they’ll immediately think of Kill Bill or the multitude of Hollywood flicks where a guy has the woman / cop partner / dog / love of their life killed which compels them to go on a bloody rampage in the pursuit of righteous vengeance. Erm, old-school style.
You could be forgiven for thinking that Oldboy will follow that well-trodden path. But you would be wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time you’ve been wrong, but that’s okay. Most people learn from their mistakes. Not you of course. But one presumes that nature, Buddha or Satan will step in and one day teach you the error of your ways. Fucker.
No, Oldboy is much more than that. Don’t mistake me, I’m not saying this flick is the Second Coming of Jesus or Bruce Campbell. What it is, is a tightly scripted, immaculately well directed flick that David Fincher or Darren Aronofsky in their wettest of wet dreams wish that they’d put together. It’s that good.
We are introduced to our main character, Oh Dae-su (Min-sik Choi), as he drunkenly irritates all and sundry at a cop station, presumably picked up by the Korean pigs for being punk in drublic (or drunk in public, depending on where you grew up), because he is being so very very drunk and annoying. A friend bails him out on a dark and stormy night, but as his mate makes a phone call, Oh Dae-su disappears.
He awakens in a room, one that doesn’t look too dissimilar to a cheap motel room, except that the room itself is a prison cell from which he cannot escape. He is taken care of, fed, watered, drugged, and fed the greatest opiate of all: television, but he is not given any explanations as to where he is and what he’s doing there. It’s not a spoiler to say that he’s there for a long, long time until he is released.
The Dae-su that comes out of the prison cell is not the same man that went in. Weaned on a pathologically clear minded focus on revenge and an excessive amount of television, Dae-su refers to himself as a monster with only one purpose. The story however doesn’t make it that easy, on him or anyone else. It also makes a sly dig at the concept of someone brought up exclusively on television, and what such a person would be like. That sounds awfully deep, but I assure you, those worried that your heads might hurt, it’s only a subtext. Rest easy. Breathe in, out. That’s better.
This film does have a great deal of violence and a few pretty sick scenes, not the least of which are such scenes as a creature being eaten alive, a guy doing dental surgery on another with a hammer, and the most cruel revenge (which I can’t reveal) which caps the piece off, which I’d thought of early on as a possibility but dismissed outright as being too nasty. When this flick inevitably gets remade in Hollywood, I will bet one of your girlfriend’s ovaries that they will change the ending. It’s too fucking sick for any audience. I can’t imagine any test audiences ever writing anything positive on those small cards the studios give them in those special screenings as they’re walking out. It’ll never happen.
It avoids letting the tone get too oppressive by making some of these scenes (few, comparatively) pretty funny. It helps. As black as the sense of humour is pervading this monstrosity, it stops the flick from getting too serious, indulgent or oppressive.
The plot is relatively straight forward (guy wants revenge), but it gets progressively more complex as Dae-su not only tries to figure out the identity of his tormentor, but more importantly is forced to figure out the ‘why’ of his incarceration. Why was he singled out and placed in such a diabolically awful position? Who had he wronged to justify, at least in their mind, such an awful punishment?
In case anyone’s confused, the prison wasn’t a state run, legally sanctioned facility. It seems to be a private affair, for the delectation of those with deep pockets and deeper reserves of hatred than those which motivate people to just have other people killed. The kind of place where you imagine Kerry Packer, Rupert Murdoch or Mother Theresa sent their enemies when they really pissed them off.
Dae-su is not merely ‘nuts’ when he comes out, to use the official term, but also has a crazy hairstyle to represent how goofed up on revenge feelings he is. As he goes about his business he seems to utterly lack the conscience or social conventions that the rest of us are burdened with. We don’t necessarily think he’s a nice guy, or that he’s overly justified in his quest because we don’t know what he’s done to warrant this attention, and neither does he. It makes a refreshing change from the usual bullshit where the ‘hero’ is justified right from the start by dint of being the headlining name on the flick’s marquee.
Against his will, but along with it anyway our ‘hero’ tracks back through a complicated and plothole-riddled history to find out the whys and the wherefores of what’s happened to him. There are an abundance of plotholes in the story, but the people involved endeavour to patch them up the way that any self-respecting tenant tries to correct all that damage to the walls that needs to be covered up before one moves out of a rental property: hastily and sloppily. The ‘fixes’ to the plot holes are incredibly convenient and intensely contrived, but I respect the fact that they actually bothered to try to explain all the little slips that ordinarily filmmakers don’t bother with, hoping that we’ll be distracted by rapid editing or celebrity tits.
Seemingly at random Dae-su bumps into a girl, Mido (Hye-jeong Kang) who is happy to look after him and also entertain his sick plans for vengeance. Stories like this depend on not merely the kindness of strangers, but even more so the kind of female characters that get wet at the merest hint of a disturbed guy with a troubled past. As a testament to the level of thought the people involved with the film put into it, they even explain ultimately why, to quote Julius Sumner Miller, this is so. But, oh, what a terrifying explanation…
I ended up loving Dae-su, just a little bit. It’s hard not to. He’s a pretty enjoyable character, I feel compelled to say; one of the more memorable ones that I’ve come across over the last bunch of years. I thought the acting of the guy that embodied the raft of complexities that is his character does a superb job. And his nemesis, whose details I won’t go into, especially, inexplicably at the end; I really liked what he did as well. You’ve never seen someone laugh so inappropriately and callously in your life. It staggers the mind and it beggars belief at the same time.
There are at least ten great scenes in this movie. ‘Great’ in the sense that they’re well put together, well thought out and connect dramatically to the material in a sensible way (ie. they’re not just standalone scenes which connect to nothing but seem ‘cool’ anyway). Let me summarise them without giving too much away: Dae-su smacking the walls with his fists in anticipation of his vengeance; the octopus; the fight that occurs in profile where prior to its start Dae-su asks himself if so many years of imaginary training can be put to good use, and then confirms that it can by fucking up a bunch of guys in a nasty looking but ‘real’ fight sequence; the conversation he has with a suicidal guy on the roof of a building, and his less that empathetic response to the guy’s needs; the scenes at the school; his exuberant sex scene after so many years of incarceration; his tormentor’s embarrassed laughter at the end, the finale, there are so many well thought out and well realised scenes. It genuinely is one of the best films I’ve seen in donkey’s years
Everyone does pretty decent acting work in what is a pretty bizarre package. I felt that the direction pretty much nailed the material as well as it possibly could, with the right pacing being used with the right timing and right emphasis used in the scenes that matter. At 120 minutes the film felt perfectly paced, and I wasn’t bored or distracted for a single second of that time.
I don’t care that people might read this review, go see the film and then come back to me and say ‘it was crap, you’re a nincompoop who knows nada about film’. I’m used to that by now, despite how mindful I try to be of avoiding the creation of false expectation amongst the great unwashed. And the washed, too. I cater to all of you, at least I try to.
Look, all I can do, especially in consideration of a flick that I can’t reveal any of the better and more relevant details because it would skewer the potential viewer’s enjoyment of it, is say that I really think this is a killer flick. Comparisons with other flicks, especially anything by Tarantino, are insulting and pointless. If anything this could be slotted more easily into the pigeonhole of contemporary Asian transgressive cinema (like the kind of stuff being pumped out by Japan’s Takashi Miike or Park’s countryman Kim Ki Duk). That would do a great disservice to this film and this director, because this effort far surpasses anything I’ve seen from Asia (in this genre) in a long time. I have much to learn about Korean cinema, and with flicks like this the ongoing discovery will be worth the crap that I’ll inevitably had to wade through.
It’s a very strong, fairly nasty and disturbing flick. Most surprisingly, it’s actually a very good film as well. You have been warned.
8 times I’ve been tempted to remove unruly, blackened teeth of mine with a clawhammer out of 10. Gods know I have enough of them.
‘Even though I'm no more than a beast - don't I, too, have the right to live?’ - Oldboy