Caving in to popular demand, I'm posting my review of Oldboy, which opens in New York tomorrow. This piece appeared in the winter issue of Cinema Scope, a Canadian film magazine edited by the indefatigable Mark Peranson. (A careless mistake of mine has been deleted from this version, and "Oldboy" and "Chanwook" have been rendered solid.)
PS I was joking about "popular demand."
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Directed by Park Chanwook
Michael Moore’s Palme d’Or-winning Fahrenheit 9/11 cut the visuals when portraying the attack on the World Trade Center, letting that day’s terrifying audio tell the story. But festival-goers could glimpse the catastrophe in another Cannes contender, South Korean director Park Chanwook’s ferocious, style-packed revengers’ tragedy-cum–memory play Oldboy, which took the Grand Prix. Oh Daesu (leonine Choi Man-sik, star of Im Kwon-taek’s *Chihwaseon*) finds himself imprisoned in what appears to be a dilapidated hotel room. His hair gets Rastafarian. Ants crawl out from holes in his skin. His guards, infuriatingly, reveal nothing. Food comes under the door; a certain melody signals the entry of valium gas, from which he will emerge with a haircut and fresh clothes, as well as to the benefits of light housekeeping. “If I knew it was fifteen years,” he says of his inscrutable sentence, “it would have been easier to endure.” He sews a line on his wrist for each year that passes. The outside world enters only through the TV. It appears that he has murdered his wife, though he has no memory of the crime. A current-events montage compresses the arrest of former South Korean president Chun Doo Hwan, the Hong Kong turnover, the death of Princess Diana, the IMF crisis, Kim Jong Il’s visit to Seoul. The destruction of the twin towers is followed, incongruously, by Korea’s World Cup victories. Could any of these incredible things possibly have happened? The world without becomes so much fiction.
“I thought I had lived an average life, but I sinned too much,” Daesu writes in a notebook that serves as “both a prison journal and an autobiography of my evil deeds.” His Kafkaesque conundrum conjures demons of guilt, but no clear crime. If philosophy is the outcome of a man restless in a room, here Park is both elliptical and economical in showing the dimensions of that room, the shape of the resulting thoughts. Filleted with jump cuts, ruined by damp, it’s an arena of existential heebie-jeebies—closed off and internal, but never claustrophobic. The space is exponentially more impressive than the DMZ limned in Park’s 2000 hit Joint Security Area. Politics and history are a bad dream here, image-planet products that rush by without sweeping away Daesu’s singular nightmare.
Fans of rug-pulling mindbenders like Dark City, The Game, and Memento will find much to savor in Oldboy, and viewers of this year’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind will detect not only thematic similarities but a scene of visual overlap. Is this my increasingly bizarre life—or is it all a big experiment, game, memory defect, and/or commercial service? When Daesu finally emerges, into a soulless Seoul of cybercafés and high-tech penthouses, he’s bent on revenge, and Park has stated that Oldboy and its predecessor, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) are the first two-thirds of a trilogy on that most understandable and taboo of human drives. Daesu’s season in hell resolves crisply—or morphs, agonizingly—into a cluster of incestuous backstories.
The psychology isn’t any more sophisticated than that found in Hitchcock’s Spellbound: Brainwashing and hypnosis work without a hitch, and flashbacks happen when you stare at something hard enough. But Daesu’s rage to order—Choi is an old hand at this force-of-nature stuff—and Park’s inventive stagings propel the scenario past the incredible into a hermetic universe of you’re-fucked conspiracy, decades-old bloodlust, and unhealable wounds. For a fight scene both mesmerizing and purposefully exhausting, Park captures, in a single take, a hammer-wielding Daesu’s lurching rightward progress along a corridor churning with thugs. (One anticipates what mischief Cannes jurist Quentin Tarantino might harvest from such inspiration.) The gross-out factor is considerable, and those who blanched at the super-fresh sushi on offer in The Isle may want to skip the part where Daesu consumes a live octopus, its tentacles slapping his face as it goes down the hatch. The eye-opening meal is cringe-making, but hardly gratuitous. In a previous article in these pages (“Cries and Whispers,” Fall 2002), I considered the curious muteness present in some recent Korean cinema, and the creature/snack’s doomed struggle in Daesu’s maw will resonate by film’s end. The casual rumor writhing in the story’s dark heart demands a grotesque silence—and the intricate if fantastic plot requires silence from this critic’s pen, so as not to mar your experience of Oldboy’s sinister, labyrinthine pleasures.