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Review: ‘Oldboy’

Park Chan-Wook Makes Revenge Epic

Credit: Tartan

Above: "Oldboy" screens Saturday as part of a Park Chan-Wook retrospective hosted by Beth Accomando.

KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando recommends seeing Park Chan-Wook's Revenge Trilogy this weekend at Reading's Town Square Cinemas before seeing his first American film "Stoker" when it opens next week.


Back in 2005, South Korean director Park Chan-Wook was not well known in the U.S. But that changed when his film “Oldboy” hit American theaters. The film won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and has celebrity fans such as Quentin Tarantino singing its praises. The film plays Saturday March 9 at Reading’s Town Square Cinemas as part of the Park Chan-Wook retrospective that I’m hosting.

From the moment Park Chan-Wook’s “Oldboy” opens, you know you’re in the hands of a master. The first shot is of a necktie held taut between a man's throat and a silhouetted figure's firm grip as the man hangs precariously over the edge of a building. It looks like a typical gangster shake down. But nothing's as it seems in “Oldboy”. When director Park returns to this shot twenty minutes later, we realize that the shadowy person is holding onto the tie to prevent a suicide. This is just one of many cleverly designed scenes in which perceptions and expectations are proven wrong.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Tartan

The opening scene of "Oldboy."

Park jumps from the opening rooftop scene to a police station where we meet Dae-su, an intoxicated businessman. The cops release the unruly Dae-Su but he never makes it back home to his wife and young daughter. Instead, he’s mysteriously picked up and deposited in a hotel-like prison cell.

Dae-su spends the next 15 years locked in this room with no explanation. He sees no one, and has television as his only companion and fried dumplings as his only food. He wracks his brain for clues to his predicament, and to pass the time, beats the walls with his fists, as he fantasizes about revenge.

But just as abruptly as he was imprisoned, he’s released. He’s given nice clothes, a wallet full of cash and a cell phone. Then he receives a call from his former captor. The caller says Dae-su has five days to discover why he was imprisoned or everyone Dae-Su has ever loved will be killed. We soon discover that the caller is Woo-jin, a boy from Dae-su’s high school. As with Parks earlier Joint Security Area, “Oldboy” is a mystery more interested in the why than the who. Flashbacks disclose why Woo-jin has punished Dae-su. But guilt over past actions doesn’t lessen Dae-us thirst for revenge. Park suggests that once a cycle of violence begins, it cant be stopped. Dae-su has a chance to end to it but concludes that vengeance has become so much a part of him that he must see it through to the end. Park makes a grimly ironic comment on the absurdity of such violence with a three-minute tracking shot that moves along side Dae-su as he fights his way through a bunch of goons at his former prison.

Photo caption:

The poster for "Oldboy."

The long fight brings everyone to the point of exhaustion, emphasizing the futility of violence. Park, like Dae-su’s tormentor, proves to be in complete, ruthless control. At times this means the film relies more on diabolically clever craft than emotion to suck us in. Park toys with us, giving us details before we know what they mean, and ratcheting up the tension just when we think the film is winding down. As when Dae-su finally confronts Woo-jin only to discover that his imprisonment was just the prelude to an even more brutal punishment. “Oldboy” is the second of Park's planned revenge trilogy. "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" was the first, and the final installment is "Lady Vengeance." Like Quentin Tarantino’s roaring rampage of revenge, “Kill Bill,” Park’s film dazzles us with style and inventive narrative structure. But “Oldboy” is more than a cinematic pastiche. In addition to the stylistic flamboyance, Park’s film resonates as political and social commentary.

Park uses a montage of TV images to mark the passage of time for Dae-su in prison, and he dryly gives equal weight to Princess Dis death, 9/11 and the Koreans playing in the World Cup. Dae-su’s story also reflects Korea's own violent past, its move from repression to democracy, and its frustration at the fact that newfound freedoms havent brought all that was hoped for. As played by Choi Min-shik, Dae-su attains tragic stature. Dae-su’s lament that even though he’s no worse than a beast, doesn't he deserve to live strikes an achingly sad note. He’s like a shaggy King Lear undone by his own foolishness.

To keep the film from being unbearably painful, Park employs unexpected albeit dark humor. He also uses a static camera or one that moves parallel to the action as a means of distancing us from the horrors. Yet Park's also unflinching in his portrait of a brutal world. "Oldboy's" excesses may send some running for the exit, and understandably so. Park puts you through the grinder but with purpose. He delivers a film full of rage and sorrow, reflecting the old wounds and fragile hopes of a country divided. “Oldboy” also reveals a filmmaker of ferocious talent and rare, provocative artistry.

I will be hosting a retrospective of all three of the vengeance films this weekend in anticipation of the release of Park's first U.S. film, "Stoker" on March 15.

Also check out my feature from 2005 about South Korean Cinema.

Companion viewing: “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Lady Vengeance,” “I Saw the Devil”


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Photo of Beth Accomando

Beth Accomando
Arts & Culture Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.

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