Friday, July 31, 2009

Oldboy: Asian Cinema Is Way More F***ed Up Than Ours

oldboy,korean film,psychological thriller,foreign film

This will be the first Asian film I've posted about, and probably one of the only Korean films. It's a deeply disturbing and intense psychological thriller called Oldboy. It is a fine film, with an immensely engaging story, top-notch acting (even considering the relatively poor English voice-over), and a punchy twist ending that makes The Sixth Sense look like Sesame Street. And Sesame Street doesn't even have twists.

Set in presumably contemporary Korea, in a town I'm not sure is ever specifically identified, Oh Dae-su is drunk off his ass. He's pretty useless, in general, and his friend needs to retrieve him from the police station. He drunkenly calls his young daughter to wish her a happy birthday, and when his friend gets on the phone to tell Oh Dae-su's wife that he'll be home soon, he's abducted. He's locked up in a hotel room for the next fifteen years, without any idea of who captured him or why. He spends his days watching TV, tattooing the passing time on himself, and shadowboxing. Eventually, he slowly begins digging his way out, and the day he gets his hand outside, he is released, left on the roof of a building with a new suit and his prison journals. Then things get a little weird.

The actor that plays Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) went through a radical physical transformation for the movie; he was somewhat overweight and out of shape in the beginning, and becomes fit and a talented fighter by the time his character is released from his "prison." He has a few incredible fight scenes, one which took three days to perfect and is actually one continuous take, with one bit of CG (a knife that stabs into Oh Dae-su), and several where he just fights people. But this isn't an action movie, really. He's given five days to track down his captor, and figure out why he was imprisoned for so long. The truth is so shocking and insane, you probably wouldn't even believe me if I told you. Also, he spends a lot of time like this:

oh dae-su,oldboy,Choi Min-sik

Oldboy was released in 2003, and was directed by Park Chan-wook. It was based on a Japanese manga of the same name, and won the Grand Prix of the Jury at the 57th Cannes Film Festival, as well as a handful of other awards. There's really no doubt why it won so many awards: you probably won't see the ending coming, and it's pretty hard to turn away, even during the weird and gruesome bits.

Dae-su does find out who his captor is, but it doesn't really help him much. He doesn't recognize the man, played by youthful but intense Korean actor Yu Ji-tae, nor does his name ring a bell. The apparent motivation behind everything is "Oh Dae-su talks too much," but this makes even less sense. Dae-su meets a young woman his first night released, played by Kang Hye-jeong. Believe me, she has an absolutely terrible secret, but it's so secret that she doesn't even know what it is. When Oh Dae-su finally learns the truth at the end of the movie, it's so freaking traumatic and insane, he literally snips out his tongue with scissors. Here, look!

oh dae-su,oldboy

Ok, sorry, so that picture is from after he cuts out his own tongue, to keep the secret from his love interest Mi-do. Seriously, if this movie was any older, I'd tell you what the secret is! It's such a juicy, juicy secret, too! But, unfortunately, I have a rule about spoiling movies that aren't old enough to buy cigarettes for themselves. Maybe in 2021 I can reveal it. I highly recommend this movie, but I feel I should warn that there are some extraordinarily graphic scenes of sex and violence, and almost as gross, a scene where he eats an octopus like a wad of spaghetti, as it slimes all over his face, writhing around. Yes, the octopus that he eats is alive while he's eating it, and it's quite profoundly disquieting.

I don't know what it is about Asian cinema that is so much more out of whack than American cinema. Don't even get me started on Japanese films... One of these days, I'll have to review some Takashi Miike films (like Ichi the Killer and Audition, or maybe Sukiyaki Western Django, even though that one isn't too disturbing). The sad thing is, we'll probably try to remake it over here, and it will be missing virtually everything that makes it great. The plot twist probably won't be there (there are some stigmas in this country about ... what's implied/revealed).

The bottom line is, it's a complicated, convoluted story of lust, violence, revenge, love, hatred, and fear. Lots of people die, lots of weird, crazy stuff happens (the first person Oh Dae-su encounters at the start of the film is a suicidal man on the roof; Dae-su tells the man his story, and then leaves. When he exits the building, the man hurtles into a parked car behind him). Also, did I mention that he cuts out his own freaking tongue?

oh dae-su,oldboy,horror

This film rates a 9.1 on my Weird Shit-O-Meter®, and deserves four out of five writhing, delicious octopuses (octopi?), or four out of five [I can't even tell you, the urge to spoil is killing me!].

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