Monday, September 12, 2005

Oldboy (2005)

Okay, if this were only a crackling good B-thriller (which it is most of the way), that would be acceptable. The Kafkaesque setup proves to be as fascinating as it sounds, and the particulars of Oh Dae-su's odyssey are compelling and occasionally ghoulishly funny as well. (The one-take hammer fight is indeed as awesome as you've likely heard.) But as in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Park Chan-wook wants to do more than just spin a simple revenge yarn -- he wants to illuminate bits of the human soul. This, then, is how we get this movie's mindbender of a finale, with its extraordinary revelations and its emotional force and its haunting coda. Simply put, this is a film about how people deal with pain and how that relates to happiness. When subjected to an emotionally devastating experience, there's options. One can confront and overcome it, one can obsess over it, or one can simply choose to avoid and hopefully forget about it. Lee Woo-jin, the villain, obsesses about a past slight to the point where it consumes his existence ("And now, what joy will I have left to live for?"). He defines himself entirely through the suffering of another. Dae-su, on the other hand, tries to confront his pain, but when it's revealed where that journey has led him, he chooses to forget. To allow himself to be happy, Oh Dae-su obliterates his pain by blotting it out. It may look semi-happy on the surface, but the end of this film is tragic and horrible beyond belief if you look at what we in the audience know. "It leaves you disconcertingly wiser about your relation to the world" is the kind of pull-quote one finds in overly pretentious film-festival schedules, but it's about all I can use to describe how I feel about this incredible, soul-disturbing film. Plus, it's still a crackling good B-thriller, with a stunning performance by Choi Min-sik in a lead role that approaches unplayable and more directorial wizardry from Park (the Fincher comparisons are misguided -- Park is stylish, but he's also more austere and never calls attention to his fancy camera moves like Fincher does). It's also quite perverse. Of course.

(Also, I'm going to hold back on discussing something else about this trilogy until I see Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, but there's a theme that likely runs through the series and it's not revenge -- the revenge angle in the first two films is a red herring, and I'm guessing it will be that way for Lady too. The hypnosis angle in this film, though clumsy, was necessary from this standpoint. Never bloody mind.)

Grade: A


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