Monday, November 21, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Oldboy" (2003)

"Oldboy" is one of those films I've been hearing things about ever since it came out in 2003. Back then I was living/working in rural Florida, where Korean films tend not to invade local cinemas. So it'd been on my must-see list for years.

I actually started watching it a few weeks ago on streaming Netflix, only to discover it's only available there with a dubbed English soundtrack. Dubbing is one of the high crimes of cinema, imho, and I refuse to watch it if I can help it. A few weeks later, a Netflix DVD arrived in the mail.

(Yes, I still subscribe to Netflix, despite their price hikes and polarizing moves of late. They seem to be doing everything in their power to alienate a loyal fan base. But the truth is that for about $16 a month, I can watch as many streaming movies as I want and all the DVDs I can see and return. For less than the price of two tickets to a movie theater, that's still one of the best entertainment values around.)

I was mildly disappointed by "Oldboy." I liked it, but I found the stylized calisthenics of director Chan-wook Park to be more distracting than augmentative. The narrative is also extremely convoluted and hard to follow at times.

I was also very put off that the main character, Oh Dae-su (Min-sik Choi), does not seem to have a consistent or central core. Granted, he goes through very extreme circumstances, being kidnapped and imprisoned without apparent reason for 15 years. But he starts out as something of a buffoon, then becomes a desperate wastrel during his confinement, and then suddenly upon being set free morphs into a grim and nearly silent man-with-no-name anti-hero. Finally, he debases himself at the climactic scene, turning from a wreaking god of vengeance into a bowing and scraping man-dog.

These transformations would be more palatable if there were understandable, and we could see the character's internal struggles. But Park and Min-sik Choi deliberately choose to portray him as an inscrutable character, more graphic novel than three-dimensional figure. This is understandable, since the film was loosely based on a manga comic by Nobuaki Minegishi.

The result, though, is that Oldboy remains an externalized character, defined by his action-movie behavior rather than the screaming inside his soul. He has about as much emotional resonance as the hammer he often carries around with him as a weapon.

Speaking of that hammer -- perhaps the film's most celebrated sequence is the one in which Oldboy tackles a dozen goons at once down a hallway wielding only that tool for defense. Park shoots the scene in one continuous take (which reportedly required three days of shooting to complete) from an imaginary side view, as if through one wall of the hallway. It is a ballet of orchestrated violence, and depicted in such a way as to make the feat believable, or at least plausible.

This is not a chop-socky movie in which the martial arts exuberance overtakes the story; the violence in "Oldboy" is up close and personal, grounded by gravity and the fleshy restrictions of the assailants' bodies.

Speaking of flesh, the scene where Oldboy eats a live octopus shortly after being released from his prison is memorable for the lack of CGI, as Min-sik Choi stuffs the squirming body down his gullet like a snake as the tentacles twist and flip and around his head. Not an image I'll soon forget.

The contortions of the plot are often maddening. There's a whole subplot where Oldboy does not trust the young female sushi chef, Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang), because she's had some kind of contact with the rich businessman, Lee Woo-jin, who is eventually revealed to be his tormentor. There's a lengthy sequence where they're doing computer searches and running hither and fro; I grasped very little of it. I also did not comprehend why Woo-jin arranges to have the hand of Mr. Han (Byeong-ok Kim), the jailer who imprisoned him for a fee, severed and delivered like a prize to Oldboy.

In a puzzling move, Park and his screenwriters do not do anything to address the aging of the main character. When we first meet him he appears to be a middle-aged businessman with a face full of wrinkles and a paunch. His body is honed by shadowboxing training during his confinement, but otherwise his appearance does not change. The only notable difference is his hair, which grows out into an absurd kewpie-doll like helmet, which is stuck somewhere between too-cool hipness and unfashionable mane.

So how old was Oh Dae-su when he was taken? Because he was already married and had a daughter who was close to 10 (for reasons that are revealed later), he must have at least been in his early- to mid-thirties. Which would put him around 50 when he is released. Lord knows I'm too much of a literalist, but I find it strange that the character losing the prime years of his manhood is not commented upon in any way.

In a further head-scratcher, Lee Woo-jin is played by Ji-tae Yu, who was only 27 years old when the movie came out. And yet he is asserted to have been a classmate of Oh Dae-su's. When I first saw the character, I wondered if he must be the son of someone Oh Dae-su wronged. Perhaps this is Park's way of commenting on Oldboy's aging without directly confronting it, as his enemy seemingly remains young and vital.

The big plot reveal is that Lee Woo-jin had an incestuous relationship with his sister, which young Oh Dae-su discovered and unwittingly spread the word about around the school, causing her to take her own life. Once this dynamic was unearthed, I immediately made the connection that Lee Woo-jin was manipulating events so that Oldboy would be tricked into sleeping with Mi-do, who is actually his own daughter. It's never a good thing when the audience knows exactly where things are heading, and waits for the movie to arrive.

The final act is a big mess. Oldboy begs Woo-jin Lee not to reveal the secret of their incest to Mi-do, promising to become his slave and even slicing off his own tongue as a token of his silence. Then there's a ridiculous coda in which the same hypnotist who ensorceled Oldboy and Mi-do agrees to strip the memory of his transgression out of his head. That way Oldboy and Mi-do can go on with their lives together.

Of course, the result of this action would invariably be ... more incest. So if Oldboy was so destroyed by the knowledge of his incest with his daughter that he would maim himself, why would he choose a course of action that would continue it? He apparently decides to live with a horrible sin as long as he can remain innocent of it, which is a terribly cowardly choice.

I did enjoy "Oldboy." It's got a fresh, original verve, a feeling of a movie being alive within itself. But like so many "best ofs" I see long after the fact, it fails to live up to its towering hype.

3 stars out of four

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