Everyone has talked about it. The buzz has been unbearable. Buzz, like a noxious gas, starts in the stratosphere, then slowly drifts downward through the lofty tree-tops, then settles innocuously to the ground. The buzz surrounding Park Chan-Wook's Old Boy did much the same thing; its reputation precedes it, and many fans of "extreme" Asian cinema (even those who have yet to actually see it for themselves) seem to hold Old Boy in very high regard, indeed. Is all of this talk and heaped praise justified? Is Old Boy worthy of the accolades that damn-near every publication, website, and fanboy rant have laid at its bloodsmeared shoes? And, more to the point, is it a "horror film", or what? Read on, and I'll try to uncover some of the charm and quality that Old Boy has to offer, and I'll tell you why it's a particularly effective and gruesome horror film...in many ways comparable to and perhaps even the equal to Miike's Ichi the Killer, though of course, the films are remarkably dissimilar. You'll also see why Old Boy's rabid word-of-mouth success is an indication that Korean genre films are becoming the inevitable next stage in the evolution and popularity of Asian "horror" flicks. There's a lot of meat to chew here, boys and girls, so bear with me...
Oh Dae-su (Min-sik Choi) is a slovenly, drunken fool. He's irresponsible, clumsy, inconsiderate, but oddly likeable, in a weird sort of way. We immediately relate to this character whose name, we learn, means "getting along with other people". We join Dae-su sitting in a police station, where he's been detained for public drunkenness. He alternates between sloshed rage and pitious groveling. It's his little daughter's birthday, he explains, and he's gotten her a pair of "angel wings" to wear. He needs to get home to his (evidently) underappreciated wife and daughter, and we really feel for this sad sack. After his best friend bails Dae-su out and promises to take him home, Dae-su makes a pathetic phone call to his wife and daughter, essentially begging for patience and forgiveness. His friend takes the phone for a moment, and when he turns back around, Dae-su has mysteriously vanished, as if he were simply snatched right off the face of the earth. When next we meet Dae-su, a couple of months have passed, and we find that he's been incarcerated in some sort of prison, but we find that this is no ordinary prison. His "cell" is tastefully and comfortably appointed (for a prison), and he's supplied with not only a comfortable bed and a television, but also three hot meals per day, though those meals seem to consist entirely of the exact same type of pot sticker dumplings...over and over again. Piecemeal narration from Dae-su informs us that he has no idea why he's been captured, and has no conception of how long he will be kept captive. Every night, at the exact same time, an odd little tune plays and his "cell" is filled with gas that puts him to sleep. His life consists of waking up, eating dumplings, going more and more bonkers, eating dumplings, questioning his situation, eating dumplings, writing voluminous lists of every person he's committed even the slightest offense against, eating dumplings, attempting to masturbate to music videos, and...you guessed it...eating more dumplings. Dae-su is kept in a state of perpetual confusion and isolation; the television is the only connection he has with the outside world and is therefore his teacher, his priest, and his only friend. It's also the bringer of bad news, in the form of a news report where Dae-su learns that he is being sought by police in connection with the murders of his wife and daughter. He knows that, if he ever gets out of his prison, he will be a fugitive. Day after day after month after year passes, and Dae-su decides to go through a training regimen, to keep his body in shape and to prepare him for some unknown but strongly perceived violence in his hazy future. After fifteen years...yes, you read that correctly...fifteen years, he wakes up one morning locked in a suitcase on the rooftop of a building very close to where he had been abducted so many years before. He's been dressed in a tasteful black suit and supplied with a wad of cash and a cell phone. He knows nothing of his situation, and is consumed (naturally) with the task of finding out who imprisoned him, and more importantly, why. When he is attacked by a group of young thugs, Dae-su's voiceover narrative inquires, "Can fifteen years of imaginary training pay off?" When he kicks their asses up and down the street, the voiceover matter-of-factly states, "It can..." Dae-su finds himself in a sushi bar, where he meets a pretty young sushi chef named Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang) who finds Dae-su fascinating and joins him in his quest. Through a grueling series of events, discoveries that uncover deeper questions than they answer, and horrific revelation after horrific revelation, Dae-su does indeed find out not only who his captor was, but discovers the deeply disturbing why, and even more importantly, he learns that his lonely fifteen years in captivity were but a preamble to unspeakable tortures to come...both physical and mental. For Dae-su, learning the truth just ain't all it's cracked up to be...
So, all of this begs the question, "is it horror?" All I can do is try to convince you that Old Boy is as much a horror film as Audition or Battle Royale. Dae-su wades through so many horrendous and tragic rivers of shit that he becomes the ultimate victim. He's a man who is finally freed from his incredibly long captivity, only to discover that he's still a prisoner, and one marked for more torment than any man deserves to undergo. If that ain't scary (in principle), I don't know what is! Luckily, Park Chan-wook is more than up to the task of presenting all of these elements to us. In the hands of a lesser, "big shot" Hollywood director, Old Boy could...and would...become just another toss-away action/revenge picture, with precious little meat and sinew to hold together this particularly depraved skeleton of a story. All we would glean from it would be "wrongly accused man gets out of 'prison' and seeks revenge on his captors", and that really would be missing the point. The revenge does come in Old Boy, but by the time it does, it clearly becomes an afterthought, and the normal sweetness of revenge becomes bitter and sour because Dae-su discovers that revenge won't give him back those fifteen years...can't give him back his daughter and wife...and won't change the fact that he is, in essence, not a very good person. Without spoiling the shocks and surprises that Old Boy packs, suffice it to say that by the end, the line between who fucked up whose life more...captive or captor...becomes rather blurred. You'll see what I mean.
In the last paragraph, I invoked an accusatory tone when talking about "big shot Hollywood directors" who wouldn't do right by the material in Old Boy. There is one director who could pull it off, namely David "Fight Club" Fincher. He just gets material like this, and in his capable hands, the inevitable American remake might actually fly. It would be completely pointless, though, as Park Chan-wook's directing style here is highly reminiscent of Fincher's...particularly Fight Club and to a lesser extent Panic Room. The camera bravely swoops and dives, not letting walls or household objects stand in its way. Chan-wook, like Fincher, seems to understand that rapid-fire editing isn't the only way to hold a viewer's attention. He lets his shots...even during fevered action sequences...go on as long as they need to go on. He doesn't cut away every fifth of a second just to give his compositions "more impact". Trust me, everything on display here has plenty of impact, thank you very much, and Chan-wook clearly has enough confidence in his own abilities as a director...and in the intelligence and attention spans of his audience...to just let things flow the way they should. Old Boy is visually breathtaking, exciting, and gripping entertainment masterfully handled by a masterful director. Plus, it will disturb the living fuck out of you with its themes of murder, rape, revenge, incest, and more. There are several knockout scenes in Old Boy, but by far, the one that has gotten the most attention is when Dae-su takes on about fifteen or twenty guys all by himself, armed only with a bog-standard clawhammer. The scene is shot in one long (two minute), continuous tracking shot down a grungy hallway. The most remarkable thing about this scene is Chan-wook's restraint. This fight scene is truly one of the more brutal and realistic fight scenes in movie history. There are no superhuman karate moves, no wire work, no backflips, nobody screams "hi-ya!" even once. No, Dae-su simply moves down the hallway, in turns delivering and receiving blows. This is a man using the power of his convictions as a kind of energy-cell...he's like the fuckin' Energizer Bunny...he just keeps going, and going, and going. But he doesn't come out unscathed. He gets hurt, as we would expect him to do, but not before taking out every single one of those dudes. It's a great scene, and it deserves the attention it gets, so fuck off.
Old Boy is a tough nut for so many reasons, it's hard to know where to start. One interesting shard of light that the film sheds is the disparity between "mainstream" Asian cinema and "mainstream" American (or even European) cinema...for make no mistake...Old Boy is, at its core, mainstream cinema. But, it's mainstream cinema with a far more vicious bite than what we've become accustomed to here in the states, in particular. We're dealing with, essentially, a fairly standard revenge tale, with all the trappings of such, but they are so deeply entangled and entrenched with "controversial" or taboo subject matter that we're left scratching our heads out of a combination of disgust, fascination, misplaced sympathies, and utter moral confusion. These are themes that aren't exactly "at home" in the average mainstream action/horror/revenge flick, and it's indicative of the core differences between modern Western and Eastern societies. One gets the feeling that Korean audiences must have taken all of these taboo-trashing elements with a grain of proverbial salt...simply accepting them as parts of a disturbing, but more or less "traditional" revenge movie. I haven't spoken with any Korean folks about Old Boy's reception in their native country, but if I ever do, I'll let you know if my hypothesis turns out to hold the water that I think it will. Regardless, Old Boy is as challenging, absorbing, disturbing, and ultimately gratifying a "mainstream horror" film experience as I've had in a long time.
It must be said that the DVD copy of Old Boy I have is, at the very least, of...ahem...highly questionable origin. Case in point: the rear sleeve copy on the DVD box, upon closer inspection, lists the cast and crew for the terrible Bruce Willis vehicle The Kid, and the "proof of purchase" and UPC on the upper right hand side of the box says, "Proof of Purchase: About Schmidt". Erm...let's just say that this is probably a bootleg, in one form or another. However, it's a great release, as the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen picture and 5.1 surround sound are astounding, and the film itself is completely uncut, clocking in at about 140 minutes. I recently saw the American limited release of Old Boy in a local theatre, and that print was pretty bad compared to this one, and it was a cut version. So, to be able to see Old Boy in all its intended glory is a real treat, questionable origin or not. On a semi-related note, the DVD box copy has one of the most unintentionally hilarious translation jobs in the history of bad translation jobs. Just for posterity (and for kicks) I've reproduced that copy here, verbatim, for your enjoyment:
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Wu Dynasty??? Fries??? Truly funny stuff. I digress...
Old Boy will go down in history as one of the most dividing movies ever. It's challenging, horrific, and totally exhilirating. Park Chan-Wook is clearly on the top of his game here, and if for no other reason, Old Boy really puts the "atrocities" in this particular example of "cinema".
The Atrocities Cinema Scoreboard
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