Oldboy (2003, Park Chan-wook)

RECOMMENDED

Although sensational newsmedia outlets following the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre branded it a depraved horror flick, the South Korean semi-action film Oldboy, sourced from a mid-’90s manga written by Garon Tsuchiya, is actually a gravely serious-minded and sophisticated suspense thriller. It conjures up visions of what might have happened if Hitchcock had decided to put North by Northwest, Psycho and Vertigo into the same movie, with sinister shades of Memento and Oedipus Rex. Despite all that it’s a true original, and beautifully acted. Its initial nightmare scenario is striking enough on its own: a man inexplicably imprisoned for a decade and a half is just as inexplicably and suddenly released, stuck wandering Seoul searcing for answers.

Like many films that completely hinge upon a devastating twist (not in this case at the end, but about twenty or thirty minutes beforehand), Oldboy is difficult to judge from a first viewing. So much time is spent disoriented and wondering about the direction of the story that it’s hard to find time to fully admire or, frankly, enjoy it — surprise overtakes pleasure. But I hoped the film would move upward in my estimation the second time, which didn’t happen. Still, it’s excellent in many respects. The gradual revelation of the incest theme rolls out with a beautiful sharpness, wrapping its way around the viewer until the truth sinks in. And the hero’s desperation in the climactic scene is achingly, desperately real.

Although I felt that the film editing was confusing and off-rhythm at times, director Park Chan-Wook, who according to the Netflix summary is a student of philosophy and Hitchcock, presents his story intelligently, methodically, dangling the knife above and aiming for the heart rather than the gut. Curiously for an action picture, it contains echos of Claude Berri’s Manon of the Spring and in its final moments matches the anguish of that glorious film. The weight and tragedy of Choi Min-sik’s central performance renders some of the movie’s excesses close to irrelevant.

And incidentally, Park’s treatment of violence, visceral but not amplified, favoring realistic presentation of agony over cartoonish sadism, is largely commendable — though I don’t think it’s my squeamishness talking when I say I feel that its brutality is downright silly, and distracting, after a while. Few other films I know of would stage their biggest fight sequence in a drab corridor for a five-minute take without a cut, all seen in long shot. And the three scenes of torture and self-mutilation are remarkable, forcing a human response that goes beyond flat-screened desensitization. The tooth extractions are worthy of a wince or two, but the tongue scene is the most impressive moment of the film, since in its sheer nastiness it gets to the heart of a bottom-of-the-barrel desperation and emotional pain rarely seen in movies.

Many people, including Park, could probably break Oldboy down as a deconstruction of a vengeful male, and there’s a certain poetry in that (for the first half of the film I was sure that the whole thing was a hallucination of violence and sex, the young chef Oh Dae-Su meets being the permissive dream girl straight out of Heavy Metal, her shirt ripped and her breasts fondled by the baddies who must then be destroyed), but what wedges the story into memory is the identification Park manages with his lead character. You feel your way through his plight, from imprisonment to revenge to love to dread to shock to sickening enlightenment. The vague sense of the affair he has with the girl is just off-key enough to feel genuinely like love, like a connection forged between random people that seems oddly familiar and strangely right, even if the fantastically cruel treatment of Mi-do is rather troubling. Surely someone as intelligent as Park could’ve fashioned a more believable female character and done things with her that weren’t quite so blatantly icky.

Pain driven by the need to protect at any cost is the story of Oldboy, pain of an all-consuming and horrific sort, but not at all physical. The message of being careful not to tread on the feelings of others is lost in the epic implications of the plot. No doubt about it, the final act is quite brilliant. The climax in the penthouse is the ideal slow burn, the confrontation that persists unimaginably numbing, the mutual hatred and ruin of two men destroyed by petty maliciousness obvious and ugly. Finally, the end of the film shot in snow-drenched New Zealand nearly brought me to tears, its delicate restraint borrowed clearly from Grand Illusion and Fahrenheit 451 but seemingly brand new anyway, the final embrace evocative, wild, grand, ambiguous, even mildly amoral. This film approaches and even dispenses with taboos that Hollywood wouldn’t touch — not only does a boy pleasure a girl onscreen, it’s her brother. And not only does the film hinge on two incestuous affairs, it doesn’t completely damn the participants. It merely damns the toll moral gossiping takes on good people making errors, conscious and otherwise.

Oldboy is maddening while it’s on but brings a rush of joy after the credits are finished. It’s a plumbing of the depths of the heart and its secrets. If you’ve a strong stomach and don’t mind live octopus-eating, this is a genuinely bracing thriller with a central shock and turnaround that works splendidly — it teases but doesn’t satisfy, and it has the daring to let both protagonist and antagonist end up only further along in their despair. The futility of all this is, perversely, the point: revenge goes nowhere except in a big circle, even if righteous.

[Slightly expanded and formalized version of a review posted in 2007.]

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