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Park Chanwook’s Cannes 2004 prize-winner hits a solipsistic snag

“Oldboy” starts with a bang and doesn’t let go for the first half hour.

Businessman Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) sits in a police station after a drunken night out. Loud and obnoxious, he annoys the cops so much that they handcuff him. A friend bails him out. Then the real story kicks in.

Oh wakes up the next morning in a prison cell, which resembles a hotel room. He spends the next 15 years there, with only cable TV to keep him company. His captors feed him fried dumplings. He tries to figure out who would want to keep him hostage. Then one day, he’s freed, dumped on a Seoul rooftop where a man is attempting suicide. He learns however that he’s a suspect in his wife’s murder, for which his kidnapper has framed him.

The plot gets far more complex from there, but the film begins going downhill once Oh leaves the cell. It starts out as a story full of possibilities, directed in an exciting style. Soon, its look gets tired. The washed-out lighting and green-tinged cinematography are intended to be stylish, but just become ugly. The editing that works so well in the opening scene becomes too hyperactive for the good of the film.

“Oldboy” is the second part of a trilogy of Park films about revenge. The finale, “Sympathy For Lady Vengeance,” will be completed later this year, and the first one, “Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance” will be released this year on video in the U. S. by Tartan. Quentin Tarantino led the jury that gave “Oldboy” the second-highest prize at Cannes last year, and many observers thought its win was a sop to his taste for violent Asian films. However, if David Fincher had been on the jury, I suspect “Oldboy” would’ve taken the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’ Or. It cops the “designer vomit” look of “Seven”—which has influenced many films, both in the U. S. and Asia—and the conspiratorial conceits of “The Game.”

In a New York Times article about Park, critic Manohla Dargis accused him—and several other Asian and French directors—of bringing the foul air of exploitation films into the art house, offering up a brand of ultra-violence that encourages audience apathy. However, “Oldboy” loses its humanity through a plot that espouses a cynical determinism, rather than bloodshed. It’s hard to explain exactly what’s so problematic about it without giving away the ending. The narrative becomes so implausible that it’s impossible to take at face value.

Does it work as an allegory? Is the struggle between Oh and his nemesis Lee a reflection on the battles between North and South Korea? Or is Park waxing philosophical about how fate controls every detail of our lives and how free will is an illusion?

The first interpretation doesn’t really fit, and the second indulges a banal fatalism. Like M. Night Shyamalan at his worst, Park likes twists for their own sake, without really thinking through their emotional implications.

On some level, Park seems aware of how callow his film’s sensibility is; the title seems to acknowledge as much. Despite being a middle-aged family man, Oh has never really grown up, but he looks quite mature next to Lee. Their conflicts are ultimately rooted in high school, the name of which Lee takes his e-mail address from. Unlike many American films about retribution, “Oldboy” never glorifies this impulse. Instead, it’s clearly a form of madness that degrades everyone in its path.

All the same, the film is not very analytical. Park seems more enamored of suave posturing than interested in thinking about it. He also has a taste for cheap gross-out scenes. At a sushi restaurant, Oh eats a live octopus, passing out with its tentacles dangling from his mouth, a pitiful waste of wildlife.

Even at his goriest, Japanese director Takashi Miike, also mentioned in Dargis’ article, usually gives the impression that he cares about his characters; the carnage is often a metaphor for his characters’ failed attempts to connect to others. Unlike his work, “Oldboy” ultimately isn’t a film about people, just about plot twists and fluorescent lighting. What little heart it has stems from Choi’s performance. “Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance” offered a more substantial take on a set of similar themes. The Korean director Jang Jun-hwan’s film “Save the Green Planet,” which opens next month at Film Forum, matches the hipness quotient of “Oldboy,” maintains a seductive style through a complex series of tonal changes and actually has something to say.

“Oldboy” will certainly expand the audience for Park’s earlier and worthier films, and I suspect that it may become a cult film. Even if it has finally brought him the attention of Western viewers, it’s a step down for him.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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