Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Homage to OLDBOY - Tarantino wishes he were this good

With LADY VENGANCE on cinematic release, I thought I'd take the opportunity to review Park Chan-Wook's previous film, OLDBOY. OLDBOY is an intelligent but extreme South Korean revenge thriller. With a plot-line inspired by the Count of Monte Cristo and Kafka, we see a doofus middle-aged middle-class guy get arrested for drunken behaviour. The man is named Oh Dae-Su and in the first five minutes of this film we see the actor Choi Min-Sik giving one of the most convincing and hysterical portrayals of a harmless drunk. As his best friend comes to bail him out, Oh Dae-Su is abducted. When he comes to he is in a small bedroom with a TV set. This is to be his prison for crimes unspecified. 15 years later, again for no particular reason, he is released. We are still only twenty minutes into the film. Dae-Su has another hour and a half to find out who held him captive, and why, and to reap his revenge.

On a superficial reading, OLDBOY is the story of Oh Dae-Su's revenge on his captor and tormentor. But as his punishment has also been a "revenge" for a crime committed in his past, we find that we can identify with him as a victim of sorts. And even Dae-Su's tormentor is himself a deeply conflicted and sympathetic character. If we can find a "moral" to such an extreme and un-real set of circumstances, it is that human nature compels us to revenge, but we cannot find peace through it. We are condemned to a life of regret if we pass up the chance to avenge ourselves, and a life of torment if we follow through. This is the tragedy of man - essentially still a primitive creature, but condemned to live in a civilised world of his own making.

To the extent that this is true, OLDBOY covers much the same thematic ground as Spielberg's portentious and over-praised MUNICH. This comparison might seem a little facetious to people who have read about OLDBOY. How can I compare a movie that, while flawed, was at least serious and earnest, with a South Korean blood-and-gore horror movie?

But I think that the undeniably brutal violence in OLDBOY is in danger of detracting from the emotional veracity and subtlety of the movie. Choi Min-Sik's performance as Dae-Su is the key part of the movie's success. Due to styling, costume and choreography he can be incredibly menacing. But his soft features and expessive face mean that even when carrying out some vicious acts he looks vulnerable. (This is a facility he uses to great effect as the former boxing champion know fighting for cash on the side-walk in CRYING FIST.)
Yes, in the iconic shot, the octopus is eaten live on screen. No, this is not considered a crime in Park's native South Korea. Yes I am very happy to needle my cuddly vegetarian friends with this fact. But the key point is that when Dae-Su eats the octopus it is because he is so desperate to eat a "living thing" - to feel life - even in its most brutal and visceral format. This is, after all, a man who has not felt rain for fifteen years.

So, I highly recommend OLDBOY. Ignore the superficial similarities to the all-style, no-substance movies of Tarantino. This really is an emotionally draining and thought-provoking movie.

OLDBOY went on release in South Korea in November 2004. It won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2004, after extensive lobbying by Tarantino failed to get it the Palme d'Or. (The P'dO ended up going to Fahrenheit 9/11, proving that the Academy doesn't have exclusivity on pissing on true cinematic greatness from a great height.) OLDBOY went on release in Europe in winter 2004 and played Sundance in 2005. OLDBOY is now available on remastered DVD replete with a crazy-large amount of interviews with case ad crew. It has already been plagiarised by Bollywood in a piss-poor John Abraham/Lara Dutta flick called Zinda (Lock) and Hollywood isn't far behind.

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