Fight Schlub: Park Chan-wook's "Oldboy"
by Suzanne Scott, with responses by Michael Joshua Rowin and Jeff Reichert
[indieWIRE's weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot]
"I'm sort of a scholar, and my specialization is you," drawls the shadowy tormentor who casually drop-kicks the Alice of Park Chan-wook's revenge tale down an endlessly twisting rabbit hole. That one simple sentence could so perfectly encapsulate a handful of modern phobias -- from the realized promise of an impending Big Brother made possible by our techno-dependence to how easily our owed 15 minutes of fame could devolve into 15 years of torture -- speaks to Park's staggering ability to casually pluck one ant out of millions and directly address our own conflicting urges to be seen and blend in the most brutal fashion imaginable.
At the outset of "Oldboy" we are told by hapless protagonist Oh Dae-su ("Chiwaseon" phenom Choi Min-sik, a contemporary Mifune who never fails to captivate) that his name means "getting along with people." And then, wryly noted via voiceover a moment later as we watch a drunken display of our hero's middle-class apathy in a local police station, that he just can't seem to get along today. Oh Dae-su is an unlikely focal point for Park's technonoir, a family man with a young child, more complacent than callused, making it all the more shocking when we witness him awaken in a makeshift prison with bad Motel 6 décor and virtually no explanation. The next 15 years (encapsulated in a flawlessly pared-down montage) are spent ogling his sole companion, the television, wallowing in unanswered questions and suicide attempts, confessing each of his sins in a collection of memoirs, and eventually winnowing down his middle-aged flab into hard muscle in the hope of one day seeking out his captor.
And, it would seem, when he is inexplicably released on a rooftop high-rise in the middle of downtown Seoul and is immediately befriended by a young woman eager to help, that he is being taunted into doing precisely that. While Oh Dae-su is hardly the middling mouse he once was, he remains eternally one step behind the cat in question. Here, unlike so many rote thrillers of recent years, the question really isn't 'the who,' but 'the why'; the sadistic pleasure isn't found in the reveal (though it's a real doozey), but the process.
Watching Oh Dae-su torture and take down a cadre of middlemen to get to his target, Park pulls us in close enough to see the fissures form as our antihero pries out teeth with the back of a hammer; then he draws back to track along at a leisurely pace as a beautifully chaotic 40-against-1 brawl unfolds, with Oh Dae-su brutalizing one after another as he makes his way down the hall to the elevator within a short span of mind-boggling minutes. His knuckles literally flattened from punching against the wall of his cell and his soul deflated over the loss of his daughter, Oh Dae-su's stunning outbursts of violence are only offset by his moments of trembling fragility -- what could have merely been a neonoir avatar in a dystopic gamescape is a fully fleshed out portrait of loss and isolationist madness, invoked by Choi with monosyllabic urgency and the occasional spasm of desperation: sniffing another man after his release, gobbling down on the flailing tentacles of a squid in the desire to "taste something alive," Park continually underscores the automatonic with the animalistic.
Vengeance is not a clean act of retribution, and Park smartly eschews anything resembling a clean conclusion, nor does he ever fall into an aesthetic rut, dabbling in realism and surrealism in turn as memory is constructed as the penultimate Achilles heel and weapon at once. "Oldboy" is surprisingly resonant not for its audacity, but for its acknowledgement that life's most benign encounters can reverberate beyond the boundaries of our control. The fractal nature of cause-and-effect that seems destined to fracture each member of Park's fictional universe beyond repair is inherently invisible yet so impactful that one leaves the theater hyperaware of every encounter, eyes opened (albeit with a palpable sense of paranoia) to the idea that our actions do have meaning. And in a world of increasingly meaningless entertainment, that is a feat in itself. That Park provokes this awareness so violently, balances black humor with blackheartedness so easily, speaks to a definite lack of complexity in contemporary American cinema. We can only hope films like "Oldboy" incite their own chain reaction in Hollywood, and not simply through appropriation and bland repackaging.
[Suzanne Scott is a staff writer at Reverse Shot.]
by Michael Joshua Rowin
"Oldboy"'s first shot is from the perspective of someone being held over the edge of a skyscraper solely by his tie, and that's the related position director Park Chan-wook places his audience throughout his masterpiece of single-minded retribution and its horrific consequences. Working within the classic structure of the revenge narrative only to circumvent expectations by sojourning through the animal unconscious, Park accomplishes something that Quentin Tarantino never managed with his bloated "Kill Bill" saga: by the time "Oldboy"'s protagonist suffers his humiliation, the director reaches the greatest heights -- or, better put, the darkest depths -- of Greek tragedy.
That's because his innovations work on levels of both form and content. Playing with montage, split-screen, computer generated images, long takes, and a variety of film stocks, "Oldboy"'s heterogeneity remains closer to early Godard's philosophical questioning than to QT's gratuitousness. It also expands on the effective disorientation achieved in "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" with simple, off-kilter compositions. Certain moments exemplify the breathtaking use of visual metaphor. "Oldboy" stays on a steady frenetic course to emphasize its pulp roots, but several long takes refocus our attention on the truly graphic like a laser beam. One such take shows, uncomfortably and unceasingly, two siblings being spied incestuously flirting in an abandoned classroom. The cutaway shot? Eyes watching in a mirror.
Beyond its unique effects and surprises, "Oldboy" represents a turning of the tide. During the peak of the film noir and the western, Hollywood led the way in revenge narratives that intensely and ambiguously explored issues of morality, humanity, and identity. But pastiches like "Kill Bill" and self-congratulatory dramas like "Mystic River" signal current mainstream American directors' failure to portray vindictiveness and brutality. "Oldboy" and "Sympathy" -- along with the work of Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Takashi Miike -- confirm that the best of Asian cinema maintains a fearlessness to go further not only in displaying violent retribution, but also in investigating the legacy of violent retribution. U.S. directors could take a lesson from their Eastern counterparts in order to represent a period when America's destructive methods of dealing with the past and its own past errors reverberate worldwide.
[Michael Joshua Rowin is a staff writer at Reverse Shot, has written for the Independent, Film Comment, and runs the blog, Hopeless Abandon. ]
By Jeff Reichert
Is Park Chan-wook South Korea's answer to David Fincher? Call it a snub if you like (on a good day, I wouldn't necessarily) but there's something in how both of these filmmakers prioritize pleasure in their works that has them bumping up against each other in my head. Not diegetic pleasure mind you -- films like "Se7en," "Fight Club" and Chan-wook's latest, "Oldboy," are contraptions erected for the express intent of putting their protagonists through increasingly convoluted and contrived series of tortures and degradations to vaguely philosophical ends. Rather, both directors seem concerned with presenting a hyper-stylized aesthetic coherence that's seductive (both physically and intellectually) yet repulsive, with the former always outweighing the latter just enough to open the possibility of repeat rides. However, for all its Greek, operatic pretensions, "Oldboy" left the lingering impression that it seemed interested first and foremost in making sure I never had a chance to lose interest.
Chan-wook's second film, the hometown mega-hit "JSA: Joint Security Area" only makes me more suspicious. While "JSA" was ostensibly interested in re-opening the still lingering wound left from the Korean War, to these eyes played it like something Tom Clancy would spit out in a weekend and toss to Phillip Noyce on a lark. Perfectly crafted and enjoyable to a fault, but it doesn't necessarily resonate as a full-fledged political statement . An indieWIRE reader criticized Reverse Shot for including the "frantically insubstantial" "Kill Bill: Volume 2" on our list of the best films of '04, offering up "Oldboy" as a superior choice. If the "Bill"s are frantic in their essential insubstantiality (for me, a mirror reflection of the frantic, fascinating insubstantiality of the time that birthed them), I'd argue that "Oldboy" is just as frantic in its efforts to convince that there's more to it than virtuoso filmmaking. You may very well find that there is, but even if you don't, "Oldboy," for all its dissimilarities, shares one cornerstone with "JSA": both aim to please, and both accomplish that aim in spades.
[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. He is currently employed as Director of Marketing and Publicity for Magnolia Pictures and co-director of the Providence French Film Festival.]