Sunday, November 20, 2005


Finally saw this Korean movie this weekend at the docfilms. I had been waiting for it since the last one year, ever since it won the grand jury prize at last year's Cannes Film festival. I could have seen it on DVD but somehow kept deferring. May be because of the wait or perhaps I was expecting too much, I didn't find the film all that great. It is spectacular and immensely entertaining but certainly not a masterpiece as I was led to believe after reading ecstatic reviews and its great reception at Cannes last year.

If you don't know already, the story is about a middle-aged man named Oh Dae-Su who is taken prisoner and held captive there for fifteen years in a seedy looking hotel room, by some anonymous person who bears some mysterious grudge with him. After he is released, he gets to meet his captor but also gets five days to find out the reason why he was kidnapped. I won't reveal the plot, because that's where most of the pleasure of watching this film comes from. The way director Park Chan-wook divulges plot information is surely masterful and it has quite a disorienting effect on the viewer who never knows which direction the story will turn to or what the truth behind the character is.

As is perhaps already well known, the film is extremely violent. There are scenes of brutal torture and Park has a special penchant for the tooth and the tongue other than regular parts of the body which take most of the blows. There is also an incredible scene with an octopus which will surely drive all animal rights activists furious (btw, do octopuses come under their purview?). Although I found one brief sex scene towards the end of the film, which was very innovative and tenderly done (it involves a hand-held mirror).

The best part of the film is as I said earlier, the way plot twists and turns. Even though there are lots of loopholes and a few subplots sound totally implausible, the mastery with which Park handles the narrative more than makes up for it. The amazing production design and the MTV commercial style camera work reminded me of David Fincher, specially Fight Club, which definitely looks like its artistic predecessor.

Some reviewers claim to read Oldboy as a Jacobean revenge tragedy filtered through contemporary pop-culture idioms and imageries, but I thought it was reading a little too much into the film. The film does try to reach some depth and insight about what it is that drives men towards vengeance and what are its moral and spiritual costs but overall the effect is quite shallow. All those existentialist voice overs just don't add up. But if the surface is so artistically designed, who cares for depth!

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