Monday, March 25, 2013

Movie Review: "Oldboy"

This is part 3 of my Park Chan-Wook retrospective

"Oldboy" (2003) is the dark heart of Park Chan-wook's "Vengeance Trilogy", which is a hard statement to make following the despair of "Sympathy for Mr Vengeance". But compared to the films on either side of it, "Oldboy" is the most immediate, direct and physical. We spend almost the entire film immersed in the protagonist's battered, tormented psyche, as intoxicated with revenge as he is. For that reason, the gut-wrenching emotional horror of the film's conclusion hits harder, in my opinion, than anything in "Mr Vengeance". Park lures the audience in with the promise of flash, thrills and gore, only to follow that up with an extra course of pain and torment. It isn't my favorite film, but I can attest that it's the sort of movie that can change a man.

While sharing many plot points with the Japanese manga of the same name, Park's film has a very different tone than the more sedate source material, and takes the story in a darker direction. A quick jolt of an intro establishes Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) as a comic book revenge hero, growling his words from beneath a shock of messy hair, dangling a man from a rooftop by his necktie. But we immediately flash back to a very different Dae-su: a drunken boor, causing trouble in a police station. After thoroughly making an ass of himself, he is bailed out by a friend only to suddenly disappear.

Dae-su awakes in a dingy hotel room with no windows, and only a television for company. Food is slid under a slot in the door, and Dae-su begs his guards to tell him why he has been imprisoned, but they remain silent. Periodically he is gassed into unconsciousness only to wake up some time later clean-shaven, showered, and with a haircut. The TV tells him that his wife has been murdered, and that he is the prime suspect. Days, weeks, months, then years pass, without any explanation. Dae-su makes a list of everyone he has ever wronged in an attempt to determine the cause of his imprisonment, but finds no likely candidates. With nothing better to do, he paints the outline of a person on the wall and beats on it with his bare bleeding fists, hoping to someday take revenge on his captors.

15 years later Dae-Su awakes in a grass field with a new suit and cell phone. Why was he released after all this time? Why isn't he dead? And most importantly to Dae-su, who can he destroy for this? After picking a fight with some street punks he quickly learns that 15 years of pretend fighting are easily put into practice. His cellphone rings, his captor announcing that the game has begun: Dae-su has five days to figure out the reason for his imprisonment or this mysterious villain will murder every woman Dae-su will ever love.

"Oldboy" revels in thriller cliches, up to and including the mysteriously trusting woman (sushi chef Mi-do, played by Kang Hye-jeong) who takes pity on our hero and gives him a place to sleep despite his obvious insanity and violent nature. Yet it seems fresh again because everything is amped up to 11. It's in this section of the film that the trap is baited, the audience accepting the parameters of a classic revenge thriller and lapping it up happily. Some of it is gratuitous (one scene of Mi-do tied up half naked leaps to mind), but perhaps this is intentional.

Dae-su's rage is palpable every second he's on screen, visualized most memorably in a now-iconic fight sequence. Dae-su faces off against dozens of armed thugs in a narrow hallway, and as good as the fight choreography is, you don't really see it. Instead you feel the impact of every blow, and watch as these guys spend three entire minutes in real time trying to take down Dae-su and failing. At one point, everybody in the hallway is tired and gasping for breath, Dae-su has taken a knife in the back that he doesn't even notice, and we wait for one of them to recuperate to the point where they can even mount another swing. Finally Dae-su emerges, drenched in blood, victorious.

Only in the third act does Park's game become apparent. The villainous Woo-jin (Yu Ji-tae) is not an unlikable figure, and seems much more emotionally fragile than one would suspect. When the truth is finally revealed the audience is thoroughly sucker punched. No happy endings are found, and the "hero" we have come to love is brought to his knees, psychologically ruined and destroyed. And at this point it becomes hard for me to remain objective about "Oldboy".

This feels like audience punishment, and that's something I have a tricky time with. While I appreciate the baroque plot convolutions and violence for their sheer intensity, and the film's characters remain true to their natures throughout, I still have to ask why we were brought along on this journey? "Oldboy" was the first Park film I saw and it hurt. I spent days trying to justify it and while I could intellectually defend the film as a study of revenge, I could never get over the central cruelty of the narrative. Dae-su has no "fatal flaw" in the tragic sense, except perhaps that he was a jerk before the narrative even began. That's kind of crummy tragedy if you ask me.

"Oldboy" is very much a gut-level film occupied with making the audience feel it. And it's not a pleasant sensation. "Mr. Vengeance" and "Lady Vengeance" tackle the same general topic in more complex ways. Rewatching "Oldboy" I find the plot simultaneously more convoluted and less interesting than those of its neighbors, and the intensity that carries the film dials down quite a bit in the exposition heavy third act. For these reasons, I'm not a huge fan. But I can't deny that it's really damn good.

Other films directed by Park Chan-wook:

The Moon... is the Sun's Dream (1992)
Trio (1997)
Joint Security Area (2000)
Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002)
Oldboy (2003)
Lady Vengeance (2005)
I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK (2006)
Thirst (2009)
Stoker (2013)

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