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September 03, 2004

Review: Oldboy

Asian cinema is prospering. It’s producing some of the finest motion pictures in the world. And few are better than South Korean director Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy.

The film is about Oh Dae-su, a family man and occasional drunk who, while making a call from a telephone booth, is mysteriously abducted. Upon regaining consciousness, he finds himself imprisoned in a hotel room. Confusion is too mild a word for what he’s feeling. Then, his wife is found murdered. His blood is at the scene. To his whole world, he appears to have vanished to evade capture. His life is gone. But he’s still alive. Somewhere. In a room. He’s fed and clothed. And taken care of.

Fifteen years pass.

And, just as abruptly as he was abducted, he’s released. Free, Oh Dae-su vows to take revenge on those responsible, and more importantly to find out the reason, for his imprisonment.

But Oldboy isn’t a typical revenge story. It’s much deeper than that. In fact, we learn that Oh Dae-su is driven far more by the second part of his vow than by the first. He has the chance to take revenge several times but doesn’t, because it would mean never knowing The Reason. And that’s what he’s really after, like a child persistently asking its parents, “why does it rain?”, “what happens to the sun at night?” or “why do people die?” Oh Dae-su wants to know: “Why was my life stolen?”

To transpose this to a different culture, one that I know much better, Oldboy is like the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden. Oh Dae-su thirsts for a bite of the apple from the Tree of Knowledge. But is some knowledge better left unknown? Is some knowledge a crushing burden to bear?

That’s what the first viewing of Oldboy is. It’s a quest for knowledge, for the truth, and for a reason. Like in a mystery, the plot unfolds one step at a time until, at the end, everything is revealed. And it’s devastating. So much so, that it’s hard to even imagine watching some of the film’s scenes placed into the context that the ending provides.

Yet that’s exactly what happens upon a repeat viewing. It’s a different film. The revenge and search for reason, so prominent before, become overpowered by tragedy. It’s almost painful to watch, knowing the outcome, as Oh Dae-su hurls himself toward the inevitable. Suddenly, opportunities for salvation become visible. But Oh Dae-su is blind to them all. His purpose propels him forward. Dae-su, like Oedipus, to use another Western example, is a victim of his Fate.

Lauded at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and lost out to only Fahrenheit 911 for the Golden Palm, Oldboy begs to be seen. Unfortunately, it won’t be hitting U.S. theatres any time soon. At least not in its original form.

In some dark, damp cave a mysterious yet powerful and influential movie mogul has had the bright idea of authorizing an American remake of the film. So, Chan-wook Park’s masterpiece will be deconstructed and reconstructed under the watchful eye of Justin Lin, the director of the ultra-gimmicky Better Luck Tomorrow (a teen flick with an all Asian-American cast!). I guess the rationale is that if one Asian can make a great film, allowing another to work from the same concept is a sure thing.

My advice: See Oldboy. See it now. See it any way you can.

UPDATE: In a recent television interview, Quentin Tarantino discussed Oldboy and plainly said that original film will, indeed, be coming to North American theaters. Whether it will be re-edited or not remains to be seen.


Blogger Scott said...

I assume that this one is worth buying on bootleg DVDr?

10:30 pm  
Blogger Quack Corleone said...

Buy it, or get it. But, either way, see it!

3:17 pm  
Blogger Scott said...

Will do!

6:06 pm  

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