Friday, September 02, 2005

Oldboy / **** (R)

Oh Dae-su: Choi Min-sik
Lee Woo-jin: Yu Ji-tae
Mi-do: Kang Hye-jeong
No Joo-hwan: Ji Dae-han
Mr. Park: Oh Dal-su
Mr. Han: Kim Byoung-ok

Tartan Films presents a film directed by Park Chan-wook. Written by Hwang Jo-yun, Lim Joon-hyung and Park. Based on the story by Tsuchiya Garon and Minegishi Nobuaki. Running time: 120 min. Rated R (for strong violence including scenes of torture, sexuality and pervasive language).

Asian films have slowly been growing their own subculture amongst cinephiles over the last couple of decades. Anime started infiltrating the American film market in the late eighties with the release of Akira. Jackie Chan got a major foothold with comedic martial arts in the nineties along with the crime drama shootouts of John Woo. The aughts brought the Japanese costume swordplay and mystical arts dramas with the Best Picture Academy Award nominee Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon leading the charge, and introduced the Asian ghost story with a slew of American adaptations of Japanese horror after the surprise success of The Ring. The latest craze in Asian cinema is the stylized and twisted films of Korea. Oldboy was my personal introduction to Korean cinema, and it will be hard for any other films from that nation, or any, to top it.

Oldboy is violent, savage, brutal, beautiful and filmed with great care for the material and the characters. It is easy to see why Quentin Tarantino has been such an outspoken fan of this film. It is a revenge picture that is twisted and dark in a way an American filmmaker would not dare to explore in such an action driven genre. Whereas Tarantino fills his hardass characters with words and speech in lieu of the action, director Park Chan-wook (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) finds balance between the action and the drama, even using the action as the drama without the usual melodramatics of special effects. When his hero, brandishing a hammer, battles a hall full of goons armed with sticks, Chan-wook shows us the entire fight start to finish without cuts, following the slow progression down the hall, with the combatants stopping to get their breath, leaning over themselves to grope their wounds and gasp for air; and it is like no other fight scene before. The necessity of the fight is easier to feel by seeing the effort of it.

We are introduced to our hero Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik, Happy End) as a raving drunk, giving the local police in the station house a harder time than most. This is not the man we come to know throughout the film. Upon his release from the police station, with little thanks to his cousin No Joo-hwan (Ji Dae-han, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring), he is kidnapped and kept captive for 15 years. The details and circumstances of his captivity are best left discovered by the viewer and the reasons remain unknown for much of the film, a mystery Dae-su must seek the answer to upon his sudden release. Dae-su vows vengeance against his captors, but he can hardly imagine the cost of that vengeance when everything has played itself out.

One of the most striking elements of the film is how close to Hollywood the production values are. The picture is clean and crisp, not like the grainy 16 mm or digital appearance of so many other foreign films. Chan-wook utilizes the clean picture by creating beautiful imagery throughout the film. Dae-su’s release from his prison takes place in a grassy field on the top of a building. He pops out of an abandoned trunk -- reborn -- no longer a man without control; now a man with a singular purpose, to destroy the lives of the men who took his own away.

Dae-su’s prison itself reminded me of the used hotel look found in the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink, a dreary place to spend the days that could warp your mind with its blood red walls and cheap outdated d├ęcor. Outside he meets a famous chef, whom he recognizes from television, his only contact with the outside world during his imprisonment. He strikes up a quick relationship with the chef, whom he knows only as Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong, Three… Extremes), and then… Well, lets just say that is where things get kicked up a notch ---BAMM!

As I watched the first third of the movie, it was plain to see this was a skillfully made film; but I wondered what made it really special. As I learned more about Dae-su’s mysterious captor, Lee Woo-jin (Yu Ji-tae, Natural City), it became apparent that this really was more than a simple revenge flick. A sort of love triangle forms between the three primaries -- Dae-su, Woo-jin, and Mi-do -- not physically, although Dae-su and Mi-do express their passion for each other, but a dependency on each other is discovered. A theme of loneliness pervades each of their lives. The filmmakers use the characters’ isolation to bind them to each other.

The performances are top notch. I am surprised that Min-sik was not nominated for every acting award in every film festival in which this film competed. The man we are introduced to in the beginning of the film could be a completely different actor and the man who ends the film has endured such anguish, and Min-sik conveys it all as if he lived it all. His expressionistic face is both wonderful and horrifying, as is the beauty and brutality of his journey. Dae-su says he does not like the haircut he is given by his captors, but sometimes the hair makes the man.

I am amazed by Oldboy. I find it hard to express how intoxicating this film can be. It is a drunkenness that only continues to grow after the film has ended. I feel the only way to truly express the passion and pain found within this film is to rant and rave the way Dae-su does to the police during his introduction, or perhaps a more appropriate way to spread the appreciation of this film is to rampage through the halls, taking on hordes of mindless Michael Bay fans, shoving it in their faces, forcing them to see what quality film action actually looks and feels like. And if that doesn’t work maybe I should pull their teeth out with a hammer and bash in their skulls for their poor taste. That may be what Oldboy would do.

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