Park Chan-wook's latest film Oldboy (currently in competition at Cannes) is the second entry in his revenge trilogy. Though thematically it shares a fair amount with its predecessor Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, its overall approach and style are entirely different.
The film received mixed reviews at Cannes. The French press, on the whole, hated it. (With the exception of Positif, which gave it a highly favorable review.) Filmbrain has a theory about the French critics, but will save that for another time. The English press seemed to be somewhat more receptive, but American critics like Roger Ebert were put off by the "level of sadism and savagery." (This from a critic who raved about The Passion.) A Reuters journalist hated it so much, he felt the need to reveal the film's crucial plot twist. This is extremely unprofessional and quite mean-spirited -- he's entitled to dislike the film, but ruining it for others is simply immature.
Filmbrain has seen the film (thanks to the beautiful Korean DVD release) and he honestly can't see what all the fuss is about. It is indeed violent in places, but less so than, say, Kill Bill Vol.1. Regardless, it's bothersome that critics are focusing purely on the violence when reviewing the film, rather than the story, the direction, and particularly, the acting.
Min-sik Choi (last seen in 2002's Chihwaseon) is outstanding as Dae-su, a less-than-perfect husband and father who is mysteriously abducted and held prisoner for fifteen years. His performance in the opening three minutes is enough to earn him a best actor award, and it just gets better from there. This is the film's greatest strength -- it is such a pleasure to watch Choi's performance, and the range of emotions he exhibits in two hours is staggering. The final shot of the film is so haunting, so disturbing, that it most certainly deserves a place in the 'greatest closing shots' pantheon.
The film is based on a Japanese manga of the same name, but loosely so. Beyond the abduction and the forced imprisonment, the story is all Park's. While the structure is fairly standard, the entire film (nearly) is from Dae-su's perspective. We know as little about his predicament as he does. No needless expository scenes of the villain wringing his hands with pleasure. Nor does Park keep us in the dark to the very end -- information is revealed at unexpected moments, yet there's still always something unsaid. The twist that occurs at the end is not some cheaply scripted device coming out of the blue, nor is it a deus ex machina -- it makes perfect sense, and forces you to reflect on the entire film.
The vengeance theme in Oldboy is handled quite differently than in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. Whereas politics played a large role in the last film, here the revenge is much more personal. This is a cat and mouse game to the nth degree -- one that takes decades to complete. The characters in Oldboy are much more philosophical than in Sympathy. Though they know what they must do, they stop to consider the potential risks. Dae-su asks himself "When my vengeance is over, can I return to being the old Dae-su?", while at the same time his tormentor ponders, "Revenge is good for your health, but what happens after you revenged yourself? The hidden pain comes back again." It's refreshing to see a character (even one as badly damaged as Dae-su) reflect on the situation -- something often lacking in such tales.
Sympathy's Ryu (see Filmbrain's complete review) begins with good intentions -- to save his dying sister. There's none of that here. While certainly not hateful, our reaction towards Dae-su in the opening minutes of Oldboy is far from sympathetic. He's selfish, inconsiderate, and somewhat of an ass. Though we soften up to him during his lengthy imprisonment, it's a long time until we actually learn enough about him to make a more qualified decision. This is excellent screenwriting, and completely anti-Hollywood, where the golden rule is "your audience must care about and like the protagonist". Park expects us to put aside personal judgments and consider the story from a strictly humanist perspective. Complicating matters, however, is the violence. Naturally we want to learn why Dae-su has been subjected to all this, but cringe at the methods he must resort to. (At least Filmbrain did -- he's mostly anti-violence.) Dae-su himself isn't proud of his behavior -- he has become a vengeance-machine, and though he can't control it, his exhibitions of care towards those he hurts (well, some of them) remind us that he was once just like us. Regardless of what we think of Dae-su throughout the film, one would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the film's conclusion.
Park himself sums up the vengeance theme best:
"With the development of civilization and the rise in education levels, people have had to hide their rage, hate and grudges deep within them. But this does not mean that these emotions go away. As relationships become more and more intricate, the rage only grows more and more. While modern society is burdening the individual with a growing sense of rage, the outlets through which people can release their rage are becoming narrower. This is an unhealthy situation, and it's probably why art exists. In reality, however, the vengeances represented in my movies are not actual vengeances. They are merely the transferring of a guilty conscience. My films are stories of people who place the blame for their actions on others because they refuse to take on the blame themselves. Therefore, rather than movies purporting to be of revenge, it would be more accurate to see my films as ones stressing morality, with guilty consciences as the core subject matter. The constantly recurring theme is the guilty conscience. Because they are always conscious of and obsessed with their wrongdoings, which are committed because they are inherently unavoidable in life, my characters are fundamentally good people. The fact that people have to resort to another type of violence in order to subjugate their initial guilty consciences is the most basic quality of tragedy characteristic in my movies thus far."
Stylistically, Filmbrain was reminded of the work of David Fincher, though there's quite a bit of De Palma and Hitchcock in there as well. (It was when Park saw Vertigo that he realized he had to try to become a director.) The film also boasts an incredible use of music -- a lush, orchestrated score with a haunting waltz theme (Eyes Wide Shut, anybody?) that is central to the story. The use of Vivaldi during one particularly nasty scene made Filmbrain think of Clockwork Orange, and he wonders is this was an intentional nod to Kubrick. The contrast of the beautiful music with the dark images leaves one ill at ease.
As a critic, it's easy to write off the film as nothing more than a violent action movie -- if you're lazy, that is. It doesn't take much to see what Park is getting at, and those that choose to concentrate on a handful of scenes (or even give away the ending) clearly aren't giving it a chance. In their defense, Filmbrain concedes that Cannes was perhaps not the best venue for the film, and that might be the cause for some hostile reactions.
As with almost every new Korean film, Hollywood has once again bought the rights for a remake. (Which will no doubt be utter shite. The twist will have to be dropped, or softened.) A domestic release of the original is rumored, but not confirmed. If you have a region-free DVD player, buy the DVD. It's more than worth it.
Park has said that the final film in the trilogy will be Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, about a woman in her mid-30's dealing with vengeance. (Quentin, are you listening?) Park claims it will differ sharply from the kidnapping and abduction motifs of the first two films. Filmbrain can't wait. . .