Outstreched arm

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Boy howdy

Chan-wook Park's Oldboy has a difficult - and thus promising - question to answer: why would someone kidnap a rather irrelevant man, imprison him for fifteen years in a macabre, motel-like room, kill off his wife, and finally free him with no explanation whatsoever? Since this is just the setup, not too much time is spent conveying the horror of our hero Dae-su Oh's jailed existence - and that's fine, because what we do see of it is done effectively.

After his release, he meets Mi-do, a cute sushi chef and another in the series of cinematic female characters who fall for nutjobs. This and other events in Dae-su's new life seem slightly too orchestrated, and it turns out that they are just that - careful machinations by a grinning businessman who explains that Dae-su is welcome to kill him any time, but that way he'll never find out the truth. Which, it seems, is exactly what he'll be helped with through many gorey, and often fantastically directed, revenge sequences. A hallway fight between our hero and a dozen thugs manages to seem both painfully realistic and like an adaptation of the Double Dragon video game. A basically unwatchable blood-free gore scene shows a man eating a small, live octopus - it's so convincing, I'm positive that no CGI was used. The poor thing wiggles its tentacles furiously as it's stuffed into a sad, pathetic human mouth, and I got nothing out of this but shared pain for both.

That's what I call effective cinema - but what is it all about? What, indeed, is the mystery behind the increasingly bizarre, unlikely, and confusing events that drive our hero toward a deadline set by his torturer? Obviously, I won't give it away, but this would not be a review if I didn't share my feelings about it. And they were, in chronological order,

1) Ooh this is going to be good...
2) Oh... that's kind of lame actually.
3) Ah! A plot twist! So maybe...
4) Wait, no... it is that...
5) But then why...
6) Oh yuck!
7) *sigh*
8) Ok, I got it.
9) Yes, yes, fine.
10) *sigh* Yeah... whatever.
11) Oh, pff, nice...

Up and down, up and down the ladder of coolness and lameness, landing finally somewhere between Audition and Opera. Chan-wook forgets that to be stinging, revelations must be brief, sketchy, and suggestive; the viewer should fill in the emotional content and factual details. Oldboy's unraveling starts off like that, but it's soon hammered onto the screen, scene by scene, in a visceral and cerebrum-raping catharsis no fictional creation ever deserved.

Allow me to compare this quickly to Memento, a movie with a similar haunted-by-an-unknown-past protagonist. The final twist there - and you will forgive me some spoilering, but you really should have seen Memento by now - is perfectly ironic: Lenny ends up being wrong precisely where everyone told him he would be, and finds himself with no one to blame for his miserable (medical and emotional) condition. As far as plot devices go, Nolan's three-minute-memory would be considered cheating in any screenwriting classroom, but to his credit, he does something unexpected with it, setting up a perfectly circular action flow; I'm not ashamed to namedrop Sisyphus (Camus's content Sisyphus, no less!)

Oldboy fails to give the audience some substantial justification for its harrowing sequences, and its ultimate resolution has been handled with much more subtlety and effect before (by Polanski, Sayles, and even De Palma, hint, hint!) so it's not as shocking as he may think it. The existence of the minimalistically sadistic downtown prison is an element that would have been far more absorbing to explain in terms of psychology (both the victims' and the guards') but Chan-wook makes it into a simple fact of modern living - examples of this kind of odd balance of importance abound. This may be where Oldboy, at moments a touching, haunting portrayal, finally falls apart: it misleads the viewer so much, it never actually gets anywhere.

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