Sunday, April 14, 2024

Hammers, Blood & Postmodernism: “Oldboy” At 20

Passed from friend to friend, Park Chan-Wook’s “Oldboy,” an enduring masterpiece that combined genre maximalism with operatic sincerity, gained its reputation in college dorm rooms, parent’s basements, and hushed late-night DVD screenings, becoming a cult sensation as the foul, blood-letting revenge saga that could stir the soul. The now infamous gauntlet of stomach-churning twists, unfolding more like a waking nightmare than the grounded grit of the typical revenge action movie, became “Oldboy’s” viral trigger. Once you saw the double-twist ending that revealed incest, amputated tongues, and catharsis by hypnosis, you not only had to talk about it, you had to re-experience it through ecstatic proxy. In the process, “Oldboy” spurred on a new generation of cinephiles and became among the first foreign films seen by many (myself included), anchoring its place as a modern classic. And in its beautiful new 4K restoration courtesy of Neon, “Oldboy” perseveres as a film triumphantly of its time while transcending it, earning new depths of meaning as we celebrate it as it hits 20.

Often credited with helping launch the Korean New Wave to international recognition (it won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2004 and was championed by Tarantino for the Palme d’Or), revisiting “Oldboy” it’s easy to see why. Then and now, “Oldboy” is a shock to the system, a visually assaultive opera of vengeance and tears that blends alternatingly playful then punishing creative choices with an absurdist noirish plot that has the fated morbidity of Greek Tragedy. Park pulled from a panoply of influences, from domestic treasures like Kim Ki-young’s erotic horror-thriller classic “The Housemaid” to the International art house circuit, naming Visconti, Antonioni, Ozu, Kurosawa, and Bergman in the post-rerelease Q&A. As a result, “Oldboy” feels like a quasi-exploitation movie as if it were co-written by Sophocles, with devoted attention to curating a look, feel, and vibe that can penetrate rich depths of feeling beneath the crunch of broken bones.

But what helped “Oldboy” catch fire with Western audiences (and maybe to Tarantino himself) is how Park remixed 90s post-modern flourishes into something that feels, at once, fiercely daring yet bracingly familiar. Whether because they were straight influences, or easy to grasp cosmetic similarities, “Oldboy” shares more than a little with the De Palma and Tarantino hits (and their copycats) of the period. There’s a non-linear, time-twisting plot structure that hides the plot reveals through clever integration of spliced time periods and storylines. There’s a joyously kitsch look to a lot of the visuals, which jump from strong, angular shots right out of the trunk of a Tarantino car, to makeshift split diopters and bedazzled transitions. When a hammer is hoisted to smash into a man’s skull, red dashes appear to chart its trajectory, recalling Mia Wallace sketching a square of dashes in “Pulp Fiction.”

Tooth torture and fist fights are punctuated by punchlines of sometimes shocking ironic humor, a tonal polarity that embodies one of “Oldboy” ‘s many mantras: “Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep, and you weep alone.” Some of the big facial reaction shots are 1970s smash zooms, right out of exploitation and Shaw Brothers kung-fu movies, which Tarantino also lovingly brought back in “Kill Bill” years before “Oldboy” released in the U.S.; a coincidence, but one that speaks to why “Oldboy” may have hopped over cultural barriers in a way few foreign films of the period could. Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,” a sensation, likely did some work as well, igniting an interest in Asian cinema at an unprecedented level in the early 2000s. Taking that combination of post-“Pulp Fiction” copycats flooding the market and a renewed interest in cinema from Asia primed the U.S. for “Oldboy” to become the word-of-mouth phenomenon it was.

Yet, for all the parallels between “Oldboy” and the other movies of the early 2000s, of which it is clearly part, there’s still nothing quite like it. Nothing about it should work. There’s an unhinged excess of styles, modes, looks, sounds, transitions, and aesthetic swings. Before we’ve seen a single shot, Cho Young-wuk’s score prepares us: melancholy strings play over the opening titles, only to awesomely explode into a blaring, 2000s techno beat drumkit as it cuts to the opening image, classical orchestra to DJ’d danceable bounce. Or the opening jail scene, which stages the action so every character is facing directly towards the camera, a gesture towards direct address, a fourth wall break. We meet our main character, Oh Dae Su (Choi Min Sik), drunk inside a police station, a deadbeat dad missing his young daughter’s birthday and hassling the cops off-camera. He speaks towards the lens as though he were on the apron of a stage, speaking to the audience, to us. The effect is both Brechitian and complicitous, invoking the legacy of theater as the prologue pulls us deeper into Oh Dae Su’s frayed headspace.

Not long after, in the first of the many imagined dream spaces, we see a close-up of a woman’s face flying off-camera as a super-imposed train crashes through the frame. Next, we’re inside the train car; first on her and then from the POV of a human-sized ant, the massive insectoid legs obstructing the camera’s view. They are on opposite sides of the train, and we hear the music of swelling, heartsick chords. Park plays the reveal as darkly humorous but also as an imagined devastating parable for universalized human loneliness and pathos. The first miracle is that these aesthetic opposites play at all––because what? The second miracle is that, at the moment, this conjured vision of a woman accompanied by a lonely formicidae touches the profound. “Oldboy” has fifteen such moments that are equally absurd and equally moving.

Conjuring wells of emotion within the layers of artifice and authenticity is Park’s gift. He’s made a career of searching and sometimes challenging whether sincere human feeling can triumph over political or social boundaries and strict taboos. I think of the buddies on opposite sides of the DMZ in “Joint Security Area”; the priest-vampire and his womanly pursuit in “Thrist”; the sadomasochistic siblings in “Stoker”; the sapphic, anti-patriarchal women of “The Handmaiden“; or the longing between cop and criminal in “Decision to Leave.” For their differences across genre and time periods, Park’s movies often study whether human connection can emerge in forbidden fields if romance or brotherhood can grow despite prescriptive social mores. Usually, dooming his characters in the process.

“Oldboy” remains the most incendiary. It’s a movie about––spoilers––a father and daughter who oedipally sleep together because decades prior, in high school, the father saw a boy sucking on a girl’s breasts, and he, a young Oh Dae-su, talked about it. A rumor was formed. Although Oh Dae-su didn’t know it, the couple he saw were brother and sister, Lee Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae) and Lee Soo-ah (Yoon Jin-seo). She heard the now metastasized rumor they had sex, and she so strongly believed it she had a phantom pregnancy. Immaterial, into material. Panicked, she committed suicide.

So emerges a revenge plot, where the brother plots a 15-year incarceration of Oh Dae-su in a cramped, green and orange-hued room with a TV, a bed, and James Ensor’s unnerving painting “The Man of Sorrows,” the perfect portrait for a crumbling mind. He is to be driven mad, but slowly. While initially Oh Dae-su is imprisoned for reasons beyond his comprehension, he’s later let out and sent on a treacherous journey to uncover what probable evil deeds lead him there (“Oh Dae-su talks too much”) a rat in a maze where every move has been pre-designed through suggestive hypnosis to lead him from his loosed confinement and unknowingly into the bed of his now adult daughter. And, father and daughter, unaware of their connection to one another, fall in love.

More now than at release, “Oldboy” vibrates with violent angst at living in the age of information, the internet, and images and how screens of knowledge and data can become new fields of reality. Lee Soo-ah so believed a whispered untruth that the mind-body connection hijacked her womb into creating a non-existent pregnancy. Lee Woo-jin’s scheme is to use a variety of methods, screens, hypnosis, and ringtones, to cleave into the substratum of Oh Dae-su’s subconscious, to rebuild him as a fractured, malleable object for his grand plan of revenge. “The TV is both a clock and a calendar. It’s your school, your home, your church, your friend… and your lover..” Oh Dae-su speaks of his one electronic outlet in captivity with slavish dependency, a statement found only more true now of our relationship with computers, smartphones, and smart TVs than in 2003.

The villain’s modernist penthouse, his lair, is full of stacks of aged film cameras, the history of image capture sitting atop modernist shelving. “Oldboy” is full of viewing screens, spy gear, webcams, hidden recording devices, and the paraphernalia of the paranoid and powerful. The bleach bypass cinematography, wide angle lenses, and use of color dominated by smeared, gross greens (unless Mi-do is present, who’s draped in reds or placed in red-toned sets) give “Oldboy” another layer of a heightened, distorted reality. Park employs a disorienting, percussive use of jump-cuts and narrative ellipses, giving to periods of lost time. And when Lee Woo-jin kills himself, he first pulls the trigger in another imagined space, half memory, and half cathartic nightmare, thinking of when his sister killed herself so he may join her in death. A photo of Lee Soo-ah hanging over the ledge of a dam moments before she died, almost impossible to have been taken realistically, sits on his wall.

Another layer of unreality comes from one of the final twists of “Oldboy,” which shows how Oh Dae-su and his daughter Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung) have been subjected to rigorous hypnosis, what initially forces them together and what might set them free. With prompts delivered primarily through electronic devices and computers, the hypnosis remakes him from a washed-up loser dad into the illusion of the coolest guy to probably ever live, smoking stolen cigs as he beats up dorks while wearing sunglasses at night in a black bespoke suit. Later, he takes down a hallway full of goons in a single take, the movie’s most famous scene. “Oldboy” openly questions to what degree this Oh Dae-su is the “real” him, or if it matters, a philosophical question Park leaves for the audience to ponder. But for Oh Dae-su, he’s glad––this is the “him” Mi-do loves, and therefore, it’s the “him” he chooses to accept himself to be.

The final provocation of “Oldboy” comes in its last seconds, when Oh Dae-su locates a hypnotist to cast her spell and pull out the radioactive knowledge of his and Mi-do’s incestual link. He seeks a life of willful ignorance, uninhibited by the knowledge of the unspeakable taboo, to continue loving, sleeping with, and experiencing life with his own blood. He wants to be plugged back into the Matrix, to manipulate his own sense of reality and truth to find peace. Should he? Would you? The hypnotist agrees to his terms, and in one more of the film’s imagined spaces, she splits his psyche, killing the version of him armed with the truth. “Oldboy” ends on a note of deep emotional ambiguity, leaving us, and the characters, uncertain whether they’re better off (or not) if the hypnosis worked.

“Oldboy’ challenges not only our lines of empathy and if we can abide by their heinous love affair but also asks trenchant questions about how our sense of self can be seized, distorted, and rewired by the omnipresent fields of information around our lives. Oh Dae-su might have been primarily manipulated by Lee Woo-jin, but on a deeper level, we’re shown to be as vulnerable to the same traps of altered, hacked perception as the damaged characters. We repeatedly see examples of how the intangible becomes tangible, the immaterial-made material, and epistemological riddles delivered through channels of manipulation and technology. “Oldboy” may have become one of the definitive bloodbath actioners about the empty promises of vengeance. Still, it speaks to the post-modernized dangers of living in the now with uncommon sight and power, giving it eerie, lasting prescience that only deepens with age.

Did you see the newly restored and remastered version of “Oldboy” in theaters recently from NEON? What do you think of the film? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or over on our Twitter account.

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Brendan Hodges
Brendan Hodges
Culture writer. Bylines at Roger Ebert, Vague Visages and The Metaplex. Lover of the B movie and prone to ramble about aspect ratios at parties.

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