Friday, June 26, 2015

At the Movies: "Oldboy"

At the Movies with Michael5000

Park Chan-Wook, 2003.

imbd: 8.4 (imdb 250: #69)
Ebert: Four Stars.
Rotten Tomatoes: 80% Fresh

Going into Oldboy, I knew only that it was a Korean thriller that, according to a little blurb on the front of the box, has “Quentin Tarantino's seal of approval." Based on this, I thought I'd be seeing a little violence, a little action, and a few twists, and figured it would be a good movie to watch while I took care of some chores. But the chores never got done. Oldboy grabbed me and held me, completely fascinated. Not because it explores interesting issues, not because it tells an especially fresh and surprising story, and certainly not because it is realistic or particularly insightful. It's just a pure, well-paced, well-structured entertainment machine. It's engrossing.

Plot: Oldboy is a direct descendent of another very successful piece of action-adventure entertainment, The Count of Monte Christo. Dumas' hero spends 15 years in a miserable prison, escapes in an irritable mood, and spends the next chapter of his life inflicting horrible -- and entertaining! -- social, psychological, and economic revenge on the people who framed him. Oldboy's hero, Oh Dae-su, is similarly locked up in solitary confinement for 15 years, and naturally feels inclined for a little revenge. In this case, however, Mr. Oh has no idea who imprisoned him, or why. As he starts to investigate, he begins finding galling clues which suggest that his laborious escape was all part of his captor's plan. This gives him a three questions to pursue: Who was his captor? Why was he put in prison? And, why was he released? The answers to all three questions will be a bit strange.

Visuals: Oldboy is told as a sequence of episodes. There are only a few instances where the film cuts between two actions taking place simultaneously; in general, we progress from setting to setting. These episodes aren’t necessarily single incidents (Oh’s captivity is shown as a montage covering fifteen years) nor are they strictly confined to one place (his initial detective work will involve sampling the fried dumplings of all the restaurants in town), but each episode has its own look and feel -- if not its own “visual language,” than maybe its own visual dialect.

There is a lot of inspiration from film noir here, and most of the episodes are either dark, grim, and gritty or dark, grim, and kind of sleek. Oh is a classic noir hero, battered, discouraged, and weary. There is a standout fight scene, in which he takes on twenty strong young toughs. Now, you’ve seen a number of movies where a hero takes on twenty men and wins, and he has done it with his amazing, superhuman fighting skills and in cheerful defiance of physical laws. In Oldboy, our hero wins his battle without any particular skills and without a single martial arts move.  All he has is an indifference to pain learned through 15 years of solitary confinement. As the camera pans down the hallway in one continuous take, Oh, dressed in his street clothes, beats on the younger men while they beat on him, winning solely through his capacity to absorb damage. It’s like the world’s grimmest side-scroller video game. Now, I’m pretty sure that in real life it’s not really possible for a middle-aged man to beat up 20 youths armed with staffs, but if it was possible, this is what it would look like.

Dialog: In Korean. Information rationing is excellent: it takes a long time to confirm your suspicions about what’s going on.

Prognosis: Hard to beat as a modern film noir action thriller.

Michael5000's imdb rating: 8.

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