Park Chanwook, the Korean director currently winning fans with his hyperviolent stories of revenge, has clearly absorbed the techniques of great kung-fu filmmakers, Alfred Hitchcock, Quentin Tarantino, and other contemporary stylists like David Fincher. He knows how to dazzle you with visions of supreme “coolness.” He knows how to shock you. He knows how to make you squirm, and how to send the squeamish — and even many of the ironclad — running for the exits.
So, does the hype generated by the Cannes festival favorite Oldboy indicate we should sit down and watch the DVD?
Not really. It’s true that Chanwook choreographs some enthralling sequences in this story about an imprisoned and tortured man named Oh Dae-su who tries to hunt down his tormentor and get revenge. And it’s true that Choi Min-sik is a human hurricane in the lead role, careening between a deep Bill Murray malaise and a feverish battlefield intensity.
But the story of Dae-su’s sufferings, his escape, his various beatings and tortures, and the horrifying realizations waiting for him at the end is so wearying, bruising, and bloody that it would better just to leave this one alone.
Chanwook, who also directed Joint Security Area and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, here tells us about a drunk who is dragged off and locked up for fifteen years, with nothing but a television and a picture of Jesus to occupy his attention. Baffled as to the reason for his imprisonment, Dae-Su goes half-mad, eventually hallucinating, which gives Chanwook the opportunity to trouble us with visions of ants that bore up through Dae-Su’s skin and crawl all over his face. We watch him train himself for his eventual rampage by fighting a figure drawn on the wall until he’s bloodied and beaten. When he learns that his wife has been murdered and his daughter adopted, he realizes that he’ll be hunted by the law if he escapes.
But he does, of course, escape, and quickly picks up a sexy sidekick named Mido (Gang Hye-jung), who falls for him soon after he orders a live octopus and stuffs it, still alive and wriggling, into his mouth, chewing its head up which its legs flail about.
And hear this: This is not an American movie, so the poor sea creature really is harmed in the making of the film. Yes, that really is a living octopus being chewed and swallowed before your eyes. If you make it that far, be warned, things are only just beginning. Soon, humans are being maimed with reckless abandon for your entertainment.
There will be teeth pried out of mouths by the claws of hammers… more than once.
There will be body parts chopped off, and a tongue cut off with scissors.
No matter what moral lesson Dae-su and his nemesis learn by the end, nothing excuses Chanwook’s grossly indulgent revelry in human suffering on the screen. Clearly, it’s a “wages-of-sin” story, but the filmmaker doesn’t seem interested in virtue. He just wants to capture sin and present it to you in a show of ego and cool. He seems to delight in nothing more than presentations of spectacular misbehavior.
At least Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction bothers to tell stories about characters who are trying to do the right thing, who have story arcs that begin in poor choices and end in demonstrations of moral growth. Here, it’s just a matter of bad guys bashing away at each other until they collapse in weeping heaps of regret, self-loathing, and outrageous hatred. Imagine Bad Lieutenant 2, in which two bad lieutenants fight each other in a game of sadistic one-upsmanship, without the appearance of the Redeemer. The token confession of sin at the end is performed at such an extreme level that it’s just another moment of hysteria, not a scene with any real resonance.
Manhola Darghis of The New York Times says it better than any critic I’ve come across: “There’s no denying that Mr. Park is some kind of virtuoso, but so what? So was the last guy who directed a Gap commercial. Cinematic virtuosity for its own sake, particularly as expressed through cinematography … is a modern plague that threatens to bury us in shiny, meaningless movies.”
Oldboy is almost meaningless, and worse. It is a wicked piece of work, entertaining us by engaging our baser appetites, portraying myriad crimes against the beauty of the human body.
A friend of mine once emerged from a gratuitously violent film and praised it ecstatically. I asked him what he liked about it. “Watching those scenes of torture,” he said, “made me feel more alive than anything I’ve seen recently.” If your life has become so numbing and dull that you need to watch other people in suffering to come to your senses, that should be a frightening revelation to you that you should seek help. We have become so accustomed to seeing a steady pageant of violence as entertainment that we have become desensitized. Great artists will reflect violence in a way that communicates the true horror of it, so that we want to turn away rather than see more.
I feel somewhat betrayed by the rave reviews for Oldboy. Believing I was going to experience the work of a significant artist, I opened myself to injury. Its tentacles are still wriggling in my memory, as if I just ate something that should never have been served in the first place.