Vengeance is His

Park Chanwook's 'Oldboy' reinvents Jacobean drama for the 21st century

Park Chanwook, the South Korean director of Oldboy, may well be on his way to becoming a capital-M Master. Though many dumb clucks have likened this filmmaker's work to that of Quentin Tarantino (without whose loud applause Oldboy would likely be another region-coded DVD), the director whom Park most strongly resembles is Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams)--another stylist who traffics in convulsive, life-changing emotion and cool formalism. Park has predictably been lumped in with Asian extremists such as Takashi Miike (the thinking man's Peter Jackson?), but he has gifts that go way beyond mere envelope-pushing.

In Oldboy, Park reimagines Jacobean theatre for the 21st century--a feat that's by no means academic. Representing states of experience that we hope we'll never share, Park uses melodrama to extend our definition of being human. The director refuses to stop at the bumper of the "revenge genre"; instead, he quietly inspects the nature of vengeance--and finds its roots in the aggression that produces survival, attracts love, and, as they say at the State Department, ensures a lasting peace. Hurting someone who hurt you: Park doesn't condemn this simply; he maybe doesn't even condemn it at all. But he certainly investigates it in a movie that can sit proudly on the same shelf as John Boorman's Point Blank and Sam Peckinpah's The Killer Elite.

Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) sits quietly in a prison cell staring at the wallpaper. A little song tinkles--it sounds as if a toy choo-choo is going to come out of the wall--and green gas comes puffing out of a vent; Oh goes to sleep. When he wakes, his wild mane is shorn, his clothes are changed, his room is cleaned. He's given access to TV and lots of notebooks to write in--but no phones, no exercise, and no human contact save for the hands that push a tray of food into his room each day. This cycle--waking, food, TV, tinkle, gas, sleep--persists for 15 years, until Oh chips his way out of the castle keep with a hidden chopstick. The image of a brick falling into a rainy street--Oh's first discovery of the "actual" world in a decade and a half--has the enchantment of a fairytale. Out there, Oh--a businessman who was blackjacked while teetering around the city streets on an all-night drunk--must discover his jailers (who also murdered his family) and, with greater difficulty, rediscover what it is to be a human being.

Cut and dried: Min-sik Choi and Hye-jeong Kang in 'Oldboy'
Tartan Films
Cut and dried: Min-sik Choi and Hye-jeong Kang in 'Oldboy'

Min-sik Choi is not a great actor; in the deadpan-glare tournament, he'd blink long before Takeshi Kitano. But he does have a static, steely determination that makes for Yosemite Sam-style hilarity. Park never gives Choi an ornament as perfect as the clip-clap sound of well-cobbled shoes that announced Lee Marvin's presence in Point Blank. But then, the whole Korean cityscape of Oldboy is Choi's ornament. Park has certainly upped the ante on what film studies pundit Thom Andersen would call the "blandly sinister": The cramped and shabby yet sterile South Korea of late-night internet cafés, sushi dumps, and high-rise industrial parks seems to conceal furtive torturers at every turn; the colorless language that Oh has absorbed from his TV-watching suggests the fastidiously scrubbed nonlanguage of an MSN weather report.

The Jacobeans' delight in monsters and mutations, inbreeding and vivisecting, came only partly from a sweet tooth for the ghoulish; their work was actually rooted more in a desire to analyze human character by placing it under the most extreme forms of stress--situations that go beyond the tragic into dreamlike farce. Park similarly places his hero under unimaginable torments in order to whittle away at his ego-powered façade and discover who, if anyone, lies beneath. What we see is a complacent businessman who comes to grow the agility and nonstop menace of a Green Beret. (As Bart Simpson observed of the Terminator, Oh is one of those never-giving-up guys.) Does Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang), the teenage sushi chef who got her job by "having cold hands for a girl," feel anything for the 15-year prisoner who becomes her constant companion? All we see from him is that steam-powered determination. Park and Choi keep Oh's inner life in reserve until the very end--a crack-up aria so full of radically changing tactics that it recalls the long, mad sequence in Handel's Orlando. And Park makes us feel as if we've been in the crucible.

It simply won't do to narrate much of Oldboy's plot: At least 51 percent of the movie's power lies in the flabbergasting force of its surprises. (And let's be clear: These aren't "twists.") I swore I wouldn't mention Tarantino in relation to Oldboy, but since the subject has been broached in the press about a thousand times, I'll just say that the two have one thing in common: a commitment to reanimating the genre film and making it work in emotional terms. Audiences leave Oldboy feeling grateful and stunned--not because the movie is violent or because its set pieces are jolting: They're shell-shocked by the emotional investment that the movie requires of them.

Park could be a new Peckinpah, a mercurial moralist tucked inside the convenient disguise of Splatterman. We might soon look back at his canon--particularly Oldboy and the sensationally brutal Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance--and observe that the director has perfectly colored in the details of how it feels to be alive right now. Being locked in a room with only a TV for a friend; reentering the "real world" by wanting to consume a living animal; trying to speak your heart and being able only to mimic the squeaks of a major ad agency--these feel more like documentary snippets of real life than like elements of a delirious genre exercise. In a few years--hell, in a few minutes--Park's feverish excess will come to resemble a snapshot of spiritual hard times.

 
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