PATRICK STEPHENSON

Earthbound concerns of an ascendant adult

“Oldboys Only”

by Patrick Stephenson,
psycho-faced avenger

OBSCURANT // Each summer, an exhausted, dog-day time arrives when we tire of the season’s movies. At first, we anticipate the blockbusters—action, comedy, escapism! But eventually, we discover a theatre-going limit, Oldboyafter which massive splosions, car chases and shallow, quippy characters require endurance, become a violation of our humanity.

That limit exceeded, those sensory assaults transform into physical and emotional attacks. Explosions become kidney punches, and obnoxious characters eat away at the soul. Unfortunately, to paraphrase a heroin-dealing Scot, name of Swanney, this summer that limit was reached and breached quite some time ago. Although I loved much of Summer Oh-Five’s cinematic fare, I’m sick of aliens, superheroes and cousins surnamed Duke. Jessica Simpson can stuff her ole pink bikini into a closet, for all I care. (I’ve seen Dukes of Hazzard twice, neither time for her dumas.)

Still, without J-Sim and her Daisy Dukes for entertainment, I require cinematic alternatives. Fortunately, I’ve found an answer, an answer in Korean. Its name? Oldboy, part II of Park Chan-Wook’s three-part Revenge Trilogy. The first was Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, in which a deaf/mute character seeking a kidney for his dying sister is ripped off by organ-dealers. Oldboy, meanwhile, concerns a character named Oh Dae-su (Min-sik Choi). He wants some revenge, too.

At Oldboy‘s beginning, Oh Dae-su—a bad father drunk on his daughter’s birthday—is arrested. After a pal bails him out, Oh Dae-su disappears. Unbeknownst, our protagonist has been kidnapped and imprisoned AGAIN, this time within a tiny room where he’ll remain for the next 15 years. There, he has only a television, a ghastly clown painting and a nightly gassing for company. When he’s finally released, Oh Dae-su’s captors give him clothes, money and a new phone. However, in addition he possesses a martial art he’s taught himself, and he wants to use it.

But things aren’t so simple, not in Oldboy.

This is, to say the least, an impressive movie. Its violence is uncompromising. Tongues are cut, teeth are ripped out, and heads are hit with hammers. Despite its brutality, though, the violence in Oldboy never seems gratuitous. Each outburst serves some purpose in the movie’s overarching scheme. Oh Dae-su’s struggle, for vengeance as well as information on his mysterious captors, becomes mythic as the movie proceeds. The emotional depths Oldboy reaches lurk far, far beneath the level American revenge movies typically reach. No doubt.

The best example of those depths, and of the artistry and skill behind Oldboy, is a long, uncut tracking shot in an apartment building’s hall. Oh Dae-su, confronting a gang of thirty or more toughs, is no longer the plump, flat-haired drunk of the movie’s beginning. Instead, he’s a lean and aged fighter with porcupine hair and a wide, disturbing grin. As Oh Dae-su fights from the hall’s beginning to its end, the camera slowly follows, without stopping, as he takes on between ten and fifteen guys at once, breaking arms, legs, heads. At one point, Dae-Su is stabbed, but continues fighting though the knife protrudes from his back. His actions in this scene don’t seem effortless. Here, we don’t admire Oh Dae-su’s skill as a fighter so much as we do his overwhelming urge to continue, to press on despite pain.

A scene like that immediately marks Oldboy as a film willing to take risks and destroy unbroken filmic boundaries. What happens after Oh Dae-su finally reaches his captor, and begins to understand why he was imprisoned for 15 years, fulfills all the promise of that hallway scene. My primary complaint with Asian films (to generalize greatly) is, they begin well and then devolve into incoherence. Oldboy skirts that dangerously, because it relies on viewers like you to make connections that are distasteful and downright disturbing. Oh Dae-su has committed crimes of his own, it turns out. Neither side’s without its own closet-skeletons. Also, there’s incest.

The third chapter in Park’s Revenge Trilogy is apparently due soon, and my anticipation is great. Oldboy is easily one of the best films I’ve seen this year. If I were Oscar, I’d lend it my slender, golden body.

Written by patiomensch

February 28, 2007 at 5:25 pm

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