Wednesday, 4 August 2010

OLDBOY (2003) - 4 STARS

"Laugh and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone"

My taste in foreign film has slowly but surely started to take shape after my unavailability for some of the films screened in my World Cinema module at university, notably CITY OF GOD (2002) and PERSEPOLIS (2007) which both captivated me with their national identity and the techniques that enabled them to be acclaimed by many around the world. Director Chan-wook Park however made a crucial breakthrough for Korean cinema with his successful psycho-thriller OLDBOY (2003), adapted from Garon Tsuchiya's comic, the film made a huge impact amongst its national cinema with its tale of vengeance, love, trust and togetherness (but in a different kind of meaning). The film begins in 1988 with Min-sik Choi playing the role of Dae-su Oh, a hapless businessman with an alcoholic dependency who after being bailed from a police station by friend No Joo-hwan (Dae-han Ji) tries to phone his family as it is his daughter's birthday but whilst waiting outside the phone box, Dae-su goes missing. It then turns out he has been placed in a chamber with the necessary needs but is not being given a reason why he's been held captive. As months and eventually years pass, Dae-Su is forced to rely on the television as his companion as well as starting to hallucinate and being gassed to sleep each night. Upon discovering that his wife has been found murdered and he is the chief suspect of the crime, Dae-su realizes that he has to break out of his stronghold and find out exactly who had him captured. He spends 15 years attempting to make himself a warrior with his fists as well as plotting to escape.

Now in 2003, Dae-su is released from the chamber and placed back in society where it would seem that no one is looking for him after he was framed early in the captivity for killing his wife. Whilst in a sushi-bar, he eats a live octopus (four of these were eaten in the film) which he was fed whilst away and passes out. He is helped by a young female chef named Mi-Do (Hye-jeong Kang) who takes him in and ends up assisting him with his plan to track down the mysterious person who had him imprisoned for 15 years. This person phones Dae-su several times taunting him about his time away and that although he is out, he is now in a larger prison being society where Dae-su's madness for revenge starts to take over him. He now knows that he must find his captor and ends up going to extreme lengths to do just that (which includes a corridor fight with several henchmen and a torture scene that will put you off going the dentist for a while). That person turns out to be Woo-jin Lee (Ji-tae Yu), a smartly dressed man with a penthouse who knows Dae-su from his past and gives him the ultimatum of having five days to find out why he had him imprisoned all them years otherwise he will have Mi-do killed. As the film progresses Dae-su and Mi-do grow to fall in love with each other and end up having sexual intercourse as they both try to uncover the secrets connecting Lee and Dae-su, tracing back to when the pair were at the Old Boys college together. Dae-su's friend Joo-hwan becomes part of the investigation but when he ridicules Lee's dead sister, who had a reputation of being a school slut, in a public Internet cafe he ends up dead and when the truth is revealed properly about what connected Lee and Dae-su it triggers a group of events that twist the film around; a showdown between the pair towards the film's climax leads to an even more shocking revelation that messes with the audience's mind and creates the distinction of what next for Dae-su.

 An explosive beginning kicks the film into orbit with its claustrophobic setting of Dae-su being taken on a dark, rainy night and sees us watch him suffer in the same place for 15 years until he is back in society. Dae-su's quest for vengeance is clearly obvious from the fact that he's missed 15 years of his life and wants to know 'why' he was placed in the situation. Playing a character desperate for vengeful salvation, Min-sik Choi shows his psychical method acting in which he makes us sympathise for his character with wanting to find out the truth and emotionally he goes through a lot with the shocks that bestow before him in his quest to earn his right to live. Eating the live octopus adds even more physicality to the performance in a motive that isn't a Korea tradition. Ji-tae Yu as Lee shows a sinister and uncompromising personality which becomes more revealing as the film progresses and one particular moment towards the end makes us hate him even more through his smugness. One criticism about the casting is that at 27, the year the film was released, Yu was clearly a bit young to play that character especially one who is supposed to be in the same year group as Dae-su. Nonetheless it is still a devious performance to savour. And female lead Kang gives strong support as the mysterious love interest of Dae-su who clearly wants to help him but finds herself dragged into many twists and turns that prove crucial towards the film's climax.

The twists and turns of Oldboy are provided by the superb writing of the film and the story is clearly aimed to confuse audiences but through the flashbacks manage to explain more detail about it. There are surrealistic elements looked upon e.g. the ants that adds to the bizarreness of the film and the audacity of the film's technical side is well shot especially the corridor fight sequence which took three days to film. If you're one to squirm to violence then it's best to cover your eyes for some of the gorier parts especially one scene involving teeth which gives the torture an element of freakishness adding as well to its controversy with the violence e.g. inspiring the Virginia Massacres in 2007. Overall Park has made an outstanding film that changes the scope for Asian cinema in general and although rumors have circulated of an American remake involving Steven Spielberg and Will Smith, it would probably be best to leave sleeping dogs lie and let this film be appreciated a lot more by worldwide audiences and make us enjoy Asian cinema properly.


At 19 August 2010 at 00:50 , Anonymous Bianca Prentice said...

You should write a blog about the failure of Hollywood and their bitter attempts to remake Asian Cinema, especially J-Horror and K-Horror. If they did remake 'Oldboy' it would be an epic failure. I also recommend that you watch 'Sympathy for Lady Vengeance' as it's part of the Chan-wook Park so-called 'Vengeance Trilogy.' Naturally it's the same style as Oldboy, and though I've yet so see 'Sympathy for Mr Vengeance' I'm sure it would make another good viewing. I really like the music in these films though; it tends to set the perfect atmosphere and Chan-wook Park always manages to select the perfect composition to enhance the story and emotional psychology. Think I will go watch Oldboy again now!


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