Monday, October 11, 2010

Oldboy (2003)

by Kevin “I want to tell you my story. Could you please delay your death?” Dillon

Abducted and locked away in a hellish private prison for 15 years, his life stolen from him forever for no discernible reason, average Korean Joe, Oh Dae Su is suddenly released into the world and has been given 5 days to discover the identity and motives of his mysterious tormenter.

The 15 long years of tortuous captivity have awakened within Oh Dae Su a monstrous killing machine. He has honed his rage and his obsessive urge for retribution to a degree that he is now barely recognizable as human. Unable to feel fear or pain, unhampered by and oblivious even to catastrophic injury, he is a deeply damaged, single-minded tsunami of violence, a true angel of vengeance leaving a remarkable trail of bodies in his wake. You know, like Dick Cheney, only more Asian.

To reveal too much more would be to risk ruining many of the twists, turns, and unpleasant surprises awaiting you in this deeply disturbing tale of vengeance and revenge for vengeance, and revenge for avenging vengeance for vengeance’s sake. If that sounds complicated, that’s because it is. Refreshingly so, in this film lover’s humble opinion. As the more complete saying goes, “Revenge is a dish best served so confusingly that one wonders what said revenge is for, who it’s from, and why it’s served on a bed of Rice-a-Roni in a pith helmet. Oh, and cold also. You should definitely serve your revenge cold.” I think that’s from The Count of Monte Cristo. But don’t quote me.

Filled with artsy fartsy flourishes aplenty and a wonderfully dark cinematic style, each scene is as meticulously designed as the grand revenge scheme that’s slowly revealed. A scene where Oh Dae Su is released from within a large, black and purple velvet lined suitcase into a day glow, bright green rooftop garden, fully clothed in fancy black duds, immerses the viewer into poor Dae Su’s confusion and madness as the camera swirls around trying desperately to get its bearings.

This movie is a visual feast with many pretty parsley sprigs of tiny detail to garnish the great, oozing corpse that is this film’s main course of horror and mutilation. It’s definitely one of those films you can’t ‘unsee’ once you’ve seen it, so be warned. (I once ignored a very similar warning about Can’t Stop the Music. To this very day I still see Steve Guttenberg in short shorts whenever I close my eyes.)

In the capable directorial hands of revenge auteur Chanwook Park, this beautifully ugly, blood-soaked character study nimbly sidesteps the torture porn trap it could have so easily fallen into and heads for higher ground as some kind of new-fangled Arthouse Revenge Flick. The bloodletting has an almost manga-like quality, elegant, graceful and gorgeous to look at even as you wince at the sheer (shear?) brutality of it all. Somehow it’s all very real feeling, too, not at all like the funhouse violence of say your Shogun Assassin or your Fist of the North Star.

And as in his other films, vengeance itself is the compelling force that moves the various pieces across the board and gives life to the plot. Discovering the ‘who’ and ‘why’ of Oh Dae Su’s trajectory of ultimate revenge and commiserating with him as he follows the twists and turns of his labyrinthine predicament is a journey into the very madness that is the perpetual motion machine we call ‘vengeance’.

In the Oldboy universe (aka South Korea), this is the one unifying and compelling force of nature: to get back at the people who have wronged you. Intentionally or not, whether someone scuffs your Adidas or rapes your grandpa, you are now beholden to an unspoken law that requires you to craft a revenge scheme as astounding in its detailed planning and unlikely execution as it is in its perfection of appropriateness in punishing the original crime.

While this makes for gripping cinema, I can’t help but insert here that I’m more than a tad grateful that real life does not often resemble the hyper reality of this movie (aka Korea, again). It’s not just that I’m lazy, which I most certainly am. It’s mainly that I have neither the time nor the creative chops to craft ideal karmic retributions. A 40 hour work week alone precludes the possibility that the bully who broke my nose in middle school and the Burger King Corporation’s infernal 10 cent charge for dipping ranch can ever be adequately avenged.

Even scarier, my 35 years on this planet of nerdy, doughy white privilege have no doubt left large swathes of wronged acquaintances, betrayed friends, co-workers with constantly missing salad dressings, high school girlfriends dumped on answering machines, and one egregiously cheated Magic the Gathering player in my wake (Sorry, Magic Dan, wherever you are). In this film’s paradigm, I could be in a constant state of being avenged upon day and night for decades and there would still remain plenty for me to account for, and I’m only mildly amoral.

I guess you could say I’m happier and much safer back here in real life (aka not South Korea) where, as we like to say, “The best revenge is farting in your crappy roommate’s pillow while he isn’t home. And then living well. You should try to live well, also.” I think that’s from Antigone. But don’t quote me.

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