Neil Young’s Film Lounge – OLDBOY



aka Old Boy aka Oldeuboi [see note below*] : (South) Korea 2003 : PARK Chan-Wook : 120 mins

In the immortal words of Canadian punks No Means No, “too much is not enough” for writer-director Park Chan-Wook, whose OLDBOY is a full-blooded, roaring, erm, rampage of revenge… Yes, it’s annoyingly hard to avoid thinking about Kill Bill and Quentin Tarantino while watching or discussing this movie, which many reckoned was included alongside rather more sedate entries in competition at Cannes 2004 to keep Jury President QT happy – or so the theory went at the time. Such speculation, while probably not inaccurate, is unfair on a film which so emphatically deserved its place at the Cannes top table and its Prix du Jury award: flawed, yes, but certainly no more so than Palme d’Or recipient Fahrenheit 9/11.

Getting back to Tarantino, however: there are certain similarities between KB and OB, but it’s short-sighted to presume the former somehow influenced the latter, so gleefully does the bifurcated American epic mimic the far-eastern traditions of delirious, stylised, bloodspattered excess of which Park’s films are just the latest example. But there are other influences at work here – western audiences may be reminded of the revenge-drama sub-genre that flourished during the Jacobean era, while the twistily histrionic late stages skid bloodily into the territory of Shakespearean and/or Greek tragedy. For this viewer, however, the overriding impression was of a nightmare experienced by a Takashi Miike devotee who’s followed up a David Fincher triple-bill of The Game, Panic Room and Fight Club by overdosing on exotic raw seafood.

Ah, the seafood. Of all the shocking scenes in OLDBOY – among the gougings, amputations, extractions, hammer-attacks, and so on – nothing quite matches the visceral impact of the moment when our hero Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-Shik) enters a sushi bar, orders a fairly large octopus and proceeds to eats it alive, the tentacles idly, revoltingly, vanishing up his nose as the beastie is consumed. Such extreme behaviour is perhaps explained by the fact that Oh has only recently been released from 15 years’ solitary-confinement in a hotel room after being drugged and kidnapped one drunken, rainy night.

During the intervening decade and half, South Korea moved from the military-dictatorship police state depicted in Memories of Murder to a modern democracy – although Park disavows any particular political intent in this choice of time-frame. Oh is able to watch the world change via his room’s TV set: in one news-bulletin he learns that his wife has been murdered, with himself framed for the crime. Unexpectedly liberated from his confinement, Oh first tries to track down his daughter who has long since emigrated to Scandinavia. Next he sets out to find out who imprisoned him and why – aided by sushi-waitress Mi-Do (Gang Hye-Jeong) – and obtain his revenge. Eventually Oh discovers who’s been pulling the strings – mysterious multi-millionaire Lee Woo-Jin (Yu Ji-Tae). But this turns out to be only the start of his problems, as Lee turns out to have a complex revenge agenda of his own…

The anything-goes script for OLDBOY – by Park, Lim Jun-Hyeong and Hwang Jo-Yun – is based on a manga by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi, not a format known for realism or restraint (see also Miike’s Ichi the Killer). Which origins perhaps explain the increasingly stylised and overwrought convolutions of the latter stages, where the excess topples over into ludicrousness and, more damagingly, we end up frustratingly unclear about what exactly did happen to initiate Lee’s epic discontent way back when.

But just as there’s no denying the icy brilliance and infinite ambition of Lee’s scheme, Park’s sheer talent is beyond doubt. His direction is crunchingly exciting, barrelling us along at a frenetic pace over the two full hours, and he marshals outstanding contributions from Jeong Jeong-Hun (widescreen cinematography), Kim Sang-Beom (editing) and Yu Seong-Heui (production design). He benefits from a suitably no-holds-barred performance from Choi (Chiwhaseon) in the enormously taxing role of Oh Dae-Su (though Yu is miscast, being at least a decade too young to play Lee.)

By the climax, however, it does feel like Park – shades of Darren Aronofsky in Requiem For A Dream – is determined to make his film as much of an ordeal as possible, to pile up the shocks beyond the point of gratuitousness and put both viewers and characters relentlessly ‘through the mill.’ In fact, he comes across as a mirror-image of his own eminently hissable Machiavel-villain Lee, a coldly pitiless manipulator of hapless, helpless pawns Dae-Su and Mi-Do. And the film itself is a little like Oh’s octopus meal: a feat of admirable audacity that defies you to look away – but leaves a rather unpleasant taste in the mouth.

7th September, 2004
(seen 17th August : Filmhouse Edinburgh : press show – Edinburgh Film Festival)

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*A note on the title: having seen the film referred to in slightly different forms, I checked with Mr Park in person whether it should be Old Boy, Oldboy, oldboy, old boy, OldBoy or OLDBOY. He didn’t hesitate in indicating the latter variation.

by Neil Young