April 15, 2005


Directed by Park Chan-wook Starring Choi Min-sik

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

When asked why the Cannes Grand Prix-winning Oldboy was glaringly absent from last fall's Vancouver International Film Festival, curator/critic/Asian cinema aficionado Tony Rayns pointedly responded with "I hated it." So what's to hate? The sight of someone sewing into his wrist to mark each year of his imprisonment? His bare knuckles bleeding from repeatedly punching a wall? Ants crawling out of his orifices? His ingesting a live octopus as its tentacles whip and grip his face? His extracting an enemy's teeth during a round of interrogation? His severing a tongue with a pair of scissors? Or his unwitting association with acts of incest? More of a cinematic stunt than an auteurist statement, Park Chan-wook's relentlessly nasty revenge tale will stop at nothing to disgust and revolt.

Choi Min-sik of Shiri stars as Oh Dae-su, a businessman kidnapped and locked up for no apparent reason. Television updates him on an outside world no less insane than his ordeal: rise of Kim Jong-il, handover of Hong Kong, death of Princess Di, collapse of Twin Towers, and the murder of his wife for which his captor framed him. Released just as inexplicably 15 years later, Dae-su has five days to twist his way through some head games if he wishes to disinter the reason behind his torment. His inquiry and retribution develop in an increasingly erratic and pointless manner - the most mind-boggling discovery being an aberrantly melodramatic back story concerning an ostracized high-school girl who perished as a fierce summer gale thrashed her white dress and long straight hair.

Oldboy is destined for cultdom, especially with the endorsement from last year's Cannes jury president Quentin Tarantino. It invites comparisons to works of Takashi Miike, David Fincher and Charlie Kaufman, but it doesn't similarly withstand critical analysis and interpretation. Park's frivolous penchant for the taboo affects an infantile coolness without commenting on or at least poking fun at all the absurdities. While his sadomasochist streak is comparable to Miike's, Park's lack of a satirical bent makes the film an agonizing experience. One can almost liken his desensitizing extremities to temper tantrums of an attention-starved child. The film's most impressive set piece is actually a long-take tracking shot in which Dae-su hammers his way through a lynch mob. Its Lone Star-esque final twist is a relative letdown considering how many mind blows the viewers have already sustained to reach that point.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.