Thunder out of Korea

Anguished, beautiful and desperately alive, "Oldboy" is a dazzling work of pop-culture artistry.

Published March 25, 2005 9:00PM (EST)

Now that pop culture is virtually the only culture many of us live with from day to day, is it possible that, like human beings deprived of sunlight or vitamin C for too long, we've come to crave classic themes anywhere we can get them? I'm not just talking about people who warmed to Hardy, Melville, James and Euripedes in school and now lead workaday lives with little time to read, or those who would love to buy opera tickets regularly but can't afford to. I'm talking about anyone who ever bothers to set foot in a movie theater, or even just turns on the TV. On television, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" used young-adult school and dating problems as an excuse for trawling the wider territory of redemption, guilt and universal moral responsibility. And at the movies, "Kill Bill Vol. 2" (less so than "Vol. 1"), framed as a typical revenge story, was actually a complex meditation on the high price of maintaining dignity in the face of humiliation.

"Kill Bill Vol. 2" didn't do well with audiences, and although "Buffy" had a fiercely passionate following, it wasn't exactly a ratings buster. But the fact that these stories keep forcing their way into the culture at all, like stubborn crocuses refusing to buy into the mere concept of winter, suggests that we need more ways of interpreting the polychromatic strata of human emotion than "American Idol" and "America's Next Top Model" can give us. Even the fact that comic books, many of them based on ancient dramatic tropes, keep getting made into movies (albeit often lame ones) tells us something is missing in our diet -- something that books, music and theater gave earlier generations even before the invention of moving pictures.

Could this explain why more Westerners are finally paying attention to Asian filmmaking? While big-budget American pictures have sorely fallen down on the job of giving audiences the rich dramatic textures they yearn for, in the past few years Asian cinema has given us pictures like Zhang Yimou's "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers," and even cop movies like Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's "Infernal Affairs," all of which found favor with savvy audiences. (Hollywood, apparently hoping to duplicate magic on a Xerox machine, is remaking "Infernal Affairs" with Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio. The director is Martin Scorsese.)

Park Chanwook's "Oldboy," from Korea, is quite different from the above-mentioned pictures, not least because of the intensely graphic nature of its suggested violence. And perhaps even more than those pictures do, "Oldboy" makes us feel a part of something bigger than ourselves. It's a grand, gritty, indelible experience, the sort of picture that mimics great literature in the way it envelops you in a well-told story while also evoking subtle but strong gradations of emotion.

"Oldboy" begins as a revenge fantasy and evolves into something much more complex and redemptive. It's a thrilling picture, and in places a funny one, yet it can't be classified as an action picture or a comedy -- it's too infused with tragic poetry to be so conveniently buttonholed. "Oldboy" is a viscerally charged picture, and an exceedingly beautiful one, but its beauty springs directly from its anguish. It's like a flower watered with blood.

The hero and the victim of "Oldboy" is Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), who is, when we first meet him, a gregarious but average Seoul businessman who's gotten a little drunk after a night on the town. He's arrested for his disorderly conduct, detained briefly, and released into the custody of a friend. That's when his nightmare begins: Before he can return home to his wife and young daughter (it's her birthday, and he's bought her a pair of white-feather angel wings as a gift), he's abducted mysteriously. Oh Dae-su doesn't know who has kidnapped him, or why. But whatever he's done, his tormentor has gone to inhumane lengths to make him suffer: He's confined to a seedy hotel room, furnished with a TV set, a bed and a "Night Gallery"-style clown painting, and fed a diet of nothing but fried dumplings -- for 15 years.

And then one day Oh Dae-su -- toughened up from exercising regularly in his room, his knuckles permanently callused from using the wall as a sparring partner -- is pitched back out into the real world, without ever having learned why he was confined for so long, or the identity of his captor. He has nowhere to go (during his imprisonment, he learns from watching TV that he has been framed for his wife's murder). He has, however, been provided with a cellphone and a wallet full of cash. The phone rings, and he answers it: The mysterious voice on the other end challenges Oh Dae-su to find out what his crime was. This isn't the beginning of Oh Dae-su's freedom; it's merely a new and more cruel type of confinement.

But on his first evening of what he at least perceives to be his freedom, he does meet a lovely young sushi chef named Mido (Gang Hye-jung), who spirits him away to the safety and comfort of her small flat after he passes out, from exhaustion and illness, in her restaurant. Mido is eager to help Dae-su put the pieces of his life together: She learns where his daughter is living (supposedly, in Sweden) and treks with him to every restaurant in the city in order to find the exact dumplings he was served during his confinement.

The closer Mido gets to Dae-su, the more she's endangered -- at one point at the hands of Dae-su himself, who believes Mido may have betrayed him. And as Dae-su learns more about the enemy who imprisoned him, he realizes that Mido is in even more danger than he is: As his nemesis tells him, coldly, "I'm going to kill every woman you love until your death."

Explaining so few of the plot details of "Oldboy" makes it seem like your standard-issue clever thriller. But to explain any more would spoil the pleasure of the plot's many surprises and intricacies. Some viewers might see "Oldboy" as little more than a puzzle movie, a mechanical novelty along the lines of the popular but stultifyingly shallow "Memento." If that's all some viewers get out of "Oldboy," it's their loss. This is Park's fifth movie: His first hit in Korea was the 2000 thriller "JSA: Joint Security Area." The 2002 "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" (which will be released here later this year) was a nicely structured but cold little picture about the futility of revenge. "Oldboy" is a deeper, warmer picture that delves into a similar theme. It's also a story of potentially doomed romance. In some ways, "Oldboy" feels more Russian than Korean -- it's fitting that the movie's coda takes place in a forest draped in fresh snow, a setting that speaks equally of desolation and fresh new beginnings.

The picture skates along so deftly, and through so many movements, that it feels like many pictures in one. Bits of "Oldboy" are downright funny, although many of the jokes are too bleak to be characterized even as black humor. The movie also features a number of beautifully staged action sequences, including one in which Dae-su fends off a half-dozen baddies in a long corridor with nothing more than a hammer. Park shows us the action in one unbroken shot, moving the camera along horizontally (and slowly) so we can take in the full spectacle of the actors' movements -- the sequence has the feel of a panoramic battle scene etched on a Greek vase. And the movie's score, by Yeong-wook Jo, mixes Morricone-style melodrama with delicate Italianate strings -- there's room for it all in the picture's shifting array of moods.

There are moments in "Oldboy" that some viewers have difficulty with, including an instance of self-mutilation and a sequence in which several teeth are pulled with the claw-end of a hammer. Park cuts away artfully, in both instances -- what we don't see disturbs us much more than what we actually do. These sequences may be graphic, or at least suggestively graphic, but they're not overtly violent, and they don't serve the purpose that violence so often does in movies: They're not exhilarating or cathartic; if anything, they intensify the pathos of the story, even when (as in the tooth-pulling scene) they're also darkly funny. Dae-su is a rather doughy, jolly fellow before his imprisonment, a happy-go-lucky but bland presence. He emerges from those 15 years as a much more complicated creature, but he's also something of a monster. In the scenes of his long imprisonment, we hear him explain, in voice-over, all the roles television can fill for a lonely person: school, home, friend, lover. When he gets to the word "friend," Boris Karloff's Frankenstein flickers on the screen. Later, when Dae-su is freed, he stumbles toward the first human being he sees, extending a clumsy hand to touch the man's face.

The moment is moving, but Park quickly flips it around to show us that Dae-su's suffering hasn't instilled any compassion in him (at least, not yet). "Oldboy" is a story of redemption, but it's not an oversimplified one. As Choi plays him, Dae-su isn't immediately sympathetic; in fact, it takes an astonishingly long time for us to feel anything for him. His face, framed by a thatch of bristly black hair, often wears a look of comic anguish, as if the distinguishing features of the comedy and tragedy masks had been mixed up. The bags under his eyes are a metaphor for the emotional weight he carries; he looks like a man who's had the soul kicked out of him. But as the story progresses, he becomes more and more handsome: There's something both virile and tender about him in his scenes with Mido. (Gang, with her softly rounded features and dreamy dark eyes, gives a beautifully shaded performance.) The changes we see in him are so transfixing that his ultimate humiliation, in the movie's climax, is nearly impossible to bear.

But "Oldboy" isn't depressing. Park gives us the release we need and deserve, in exchange for the trust we've placed in him. There are scenes that may seem gratuitous, or at least just gimmicky, as you're watching them. But after the movie's over, you see how carefully they fit into Park's vision. When Dae-su first stumbles into Mido's restaurant, after he's just been sprung from captivity, he makes a request that she doesn't quite understand. He repeats it: "I said, I want to eat something alive." So she brings him an octopus, a moist, pearly-gray thing still moving on the plate. He bites the head off, and then shovels the tentacles into his mouth; they curl and clutch at his lips, as if making one last desperate grab at life.

The scene is both horrifying and a little funny, particularly when, immediately after having devoured this weird meal, Dae-su passes out on his plate. The meaning of the sequence is clear: After having been imprisoned for so long, Dae-su has no idea how to start living again. He seems to hope, irrationally, that he can jump-start the dead circuits inside him by eating something that's still moving.

That logic is, of course, futile. But to people who keep trekking to the movies, hoping for a few hours of escape at least and transcendence at best, it probably makes a rueful kind of sense. So many pictures, even some very well-made ones, seem dead on arrival. But "Oldboy" is desperately alive, something Quentin Tarantino was clearly aware of when he tried to rally support for the picture among his fellow jury members at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. And when something's this alive, Hollywood smells money: An American remake of "Oldboy" is reportedly in the works.

But "Oldboy," as delicate as a snowflake and as hardy as a thumbprint, will not be duplicated. It's a dazzling work of pop-culture artistry, a product of its time, maybe, but not, strictly speaking, just a product. "Oldboy" sends us home with more than we came in with. We leave the theater knowing we've experienced something, instead of just feeling we've been bought -- or, worse yet, had.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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