Sunday, August 8, 2010

East Asian Directors Marathon #1- Oldboy (2003, South Korea, Park Chan-wook)

"Even though I'm no more than a monster- don't I, too, have the right to live?"

This is the second time I've seen the film. The first time I walked away with a bevy of emotions battling inside of me. The story of the film is both beautiful and repulsive. I was so shocked by what I just witnessed. Those final scenes of the film could only be described as the destruction of a man's humanity. A dear friend told me to watch the film a second time, now knowing the shock and just look at how well the story was told. So to start off my look at East Asian Directors, this felt like the perfect mindset to begin with. I should point out that is tough to talk about this film and not give secrets away. Don't even bother reading if you plan on sitting down for this movie one day. I wouldn't call it spoiler-worthy, but I do give up some intricate details.

For those who've never seen this film, let me explain the first fifteen minutes of the plot. Oh Dae-su probably got into some sort of a bar-fight or was arrested for lewd behavior. It doesn't really matter. All we know is that in the film's second scene, he is in a police station waiting for his friend to come bail him out. Once his friend arrives, he takes Oh Dae-su out into the rain and looks away only for a moment and when he turns around, Oh Dae-su is gone. Oh Dae-su wakes up in a hotel room with no windows and a bolted down door. Every so often a latch is opened at the bottom of the door where dumplings are delivered as Oh Dae-su's meal for the day. He has a television set in the room which he turns on to learn that his wife has been murdered and his daughter has been sent to a foster family in another country as part of an adoption program. Fingerprints and other evidence indicates that he murdered his wife making him a wanted fugitive. Days turn into months and months turn into years. Oh Dae-su then plans his vengeance. He builds up his body to peak physical strength for the one day he is let free and he remembers the taste of the dumplings so perhaps he can use that as a clue to track down who has imprisoned him for what becomes fifteen years.

Gas is periodically vented into the room that knocks Oh Dae-su out. When he wakes up, his nails are clipped, his hair his cut, and his clothes are changed. One day the gas comes into the room but instead of waking up back in the apartment, he wakes up on a rooftop. That is where the journey of this man's vengeance truly begins. Before he goes after his captors, he decides to stop at a sushi restaurant (a scene where a live animal is definitely consumed during filming) where he recognizes the female sushi chef from the TV. She is Mi-do and she develops a liking to Oh Dae-su. When he faints at the restaurant, she takes him home to care for him and the two begin a relationship of sorts.

So this is the beginning of the film, but where it ends up is somewhere else entirely. The film begins as a mystery and ends as a tragedy. Along the way Oh Dau-su fights a hallway of his jailers and pulls some teeth as he falls deeper and deeper into vengeance. Some might call this shock cinema, but it really serves to move the story along. However, come the final revelation, one might look at it as a letdown. It is not truly a momentous reason to jail a man for fifteen years but I question whether it relates to something dark and personal for Park Chan-wook and his writers or if it is a reflection on taboos in South Korean culture that haven't been addressed in their cinema yet. Either way, Oldboy is a film that doesn't stop along the way to question its logic. Instead it trusts that we can understand these human emotions that can only be realized once we've all been pushed past our breaking points. Think of the most tragic and poetic story or film you've witnessed (for me it is either Schindler's List or Requiem for a Dream) and forget them. Oldboy is much more difficult to watch. At first you'll be impressed at the fights and the thrilling aspects of the film but once Mi-do and Oh Dae-su become romantically involved right after the villain is revealed, everything changes.

As repulsive and horrific the film may appear, I think having been a part of such an experience you'll begin to question the ending and then you can find the beauty in the film. You've witnessed a man become destroyed but where does that leave him? I think it actually leaves him in a place of understanding. Could I tell you why and how? Probably not, but the concluding smile should lead me to believe that Oh Dae-su found something deep inside of him and that will leave him content. It is just a damn shame that he may forget the journey that got him there. I'll leave the rest for a more intelligence analyst to resolve. Yet I couldn't get behind the vengeance aspect during my second viewing. That is the central theme of the film (and oddly enough, so is love, whether it be allowed or not). The first time I was repulsed while the second time I felt there was no justification behind the repulsiveness. I really don't want to revisit the film a third time despite how masterfully put together everything feels. I question what mindset I have to be in to ever gain a deeper understanding of this story. What I do like about the content of the film is how far from the mainstream it is, but I don't want to ever go beyond the point that Oldboy sits at on the spectrum.

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