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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Review: Oldboy (2003)

* * * *

Director: Chan-wook Park
Starring: Min-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hye-jeong Kang

Believe it or not, I managed to go 7 years without finding out anything about Oldboy other than its very basic premise and that there is a tooth extraction scene that makes Marathon Man look like a Disney movie. Having now seen it, I've got to say, that was like 80 different kinds of fucked up. But I'm very glad that I was able to go into it cold, not knowing where it was going to end up.

The story centers on Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi), introduced to us drunk and acting like an idiot in a police station. Eventually a friend comes to bail him out, stopping on the way to make a phone call. When he hangs up the phone, he finds that Dae-su has disappeared, leaving no trace behind except for the wings he had bought as a birthday present for his daughter. When Dae-su comes to he finds that he's being held captive. No one will tell him how long he'll be there or even why he's there in the first place and he spends his days alone save for his television. While he's locked up he learns that his wife has been murdered and that he's the prime suspect, meaning that even if he were to get out, he'd end up in another jail. 15 years pass and then, as unceremoniously as he was plucked off the street, he's returned to the outside world - which isn't to say that he's free.

Someone is playing a game with him, guiding him, taunting him. He meets Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang), a chef who takes him in and quickly comes to love him. He also meets Woo-jin Lee (Ji-tae Yu), the man responsible for what's happened to him. He gives Dae-su a timeline in which to uncover the reason why he's been targetted or else more people he loves will be murdered. Determined to exact his revenge, Dae-su presses on and eventually uncovers a horrible truth that he would have been better off not knowing.

The story is tightly constructed, allowing the narrative tension to keep building as Dae-su peels back layer upon layer of the mystery. It tips its hand, slightly, in terms of the big reveal at the end, but only enough so that it makes sense in conjunction with everything that has come before. Although I think that the very last scene is weak and provides an easy out, for the most part I think the screenplay is very strong. Stronger still is the direction by Chan-wook Park who, in one scene in particular, manages to elevate violence to a level of aesthetic grace. That scene, an extended one-take tracking shot in which Dae-su fights his way down a corridor is so perfect, so expertly crafted that it puts to shame all those fast cutting action sequences favoured by most films today.

Like all successful films from around the world, Oldboy is set for an American remake. I have to assume that it won't be a faithful remake of Park's film (though, in fairness, it may be a faithful adaptation of the manga series) because I just don't see how that could work given the constraints of American film conventions. It's not the content of the story that gives me pause, but the outcome for the hero. In American movies the hero triumphs. Sometimes that triumph is only ambiguous but certainly the hero never ends up prostrate at the feet of his enemy, humiliating himself and begging for mercy. American heroes don't do that and the scene in which Dae-su does just that is the one that holds the most narrative power, perhaps because it so handily subverts the customs and expectations of mainstream action films. Take that away and you remove one of the story's most compelling elements, something that helps raise it above your standard bloody revenge thriller. Oldboy is a lot of things, but it's anything but standard.

1 comment:

Shubhajit said...

Terrific review of one of my favourite films. In fact I ranked in among the top 5 in my list of what constitutes in my opinion the 100 best films of the 2000's that I've posted at my blog.

"That scene, an extended one-take tracking shot in which Dae-su fights his way down a corridor is so perfect, so expertly crafted that it puts to shame all those fast cutting action sequences favoured by most films today." Indeed! That ranks among one of my favourite sequences too the sheer audacity of which leaves me gaping every time I watch it.