Saturday, November 19, 2005


Oldboy (3.5/5)

Oldboy is a film of revenge, secrets, and twists that amount to a textbook perfection of modern day Greek Tragedy. I've never really liked Greek Tragedy. I've read both Antigone by Sophocles and Agamemnon by Aeschylus and I came up with the exact same feeling towards those works as I did towards this one: I just didn't care about any of the characters. I recognize that there are some wonderful things about those plays (and, plenty of wonderful things in Oldboy), but there was no point of entry for me - no character to latch onto.

As the film opens up Dae-Su has been picked up by the police in a drunken stupor. His friend bails him out, but before he is taken home to his wife and daughter Dae-Su is abducted. He spends the next fifteen years trapped in some kind of hotel room where he is fed fried dumplings through a slit in the door, and every now and then they pump sleeping gas into the room so they can cut his hair. His only connection to the world is through television. From the television he finds out that his wife has been killed and he has been framed. He begins training to take revenge and even forms a plan of escape.

Mysteriously, before he can execute his plans he is let go. Eventually he meets up with a younger female sushi chef and the two of them try and solve the riddle of his incarceration. I won't spoil the film with more detail for those who want to see it. I guarantee there's a lot more to the story.

One of the great things about reading something as old as Greek Tragedy is the window it gives you to a whole other civilization. This is the same kind of excitement one gets from watching a foreign film. I will admit that the ending of this film would never be included in an American movie, and there are some odd scenes involving sex or sexual tension that I didn't know whether to laugh or cringe. It kind of makes you wonder what the hell is going on in the mind of the average Korean male. However, there are also some great surreal moments that probably wouldn't be found in an American revenge film. They're not a major part of the movie, but for me they were the best parts. One word: ants.

I heard somewhere that the director is actually a philosophy major. You can definitely tell from the film. There are certain profundities Oldboy forced me to face. Do Koreans really not know what the Count of Monte Cristo is? Does every rich business man have a short body guard that can kick ass? When a Korea says I'll be your dog, do they really mean it literally? Why do people go to internet cafes anyways? Questions like this will challenge the audience and make them think about their own life. (And yes, "profundities" is a word).

As an audience we learn very little about Dae-Su, and personally I don't think the film itself was terribly interested. There were plot points that were contrived in order to fulfill the direction of the story, but I didn't feel like they were overly forced. The film has style to spare, and that's probably its biggest strength.

As you can tell, I had a real mixed reaction to this film. I didn't know whether to give it a 3 (bad review) or a 3.5 (good review). I opted for the latter. Even though this film wasn't my cup of chai, it wasn't worthless and I wouldn't want to prevent anyone from seeing it. If you're really into Korean cinema I'm sure you'll enjoy it, and anyone who's into Greek Tragedy, or even Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, will probably like it. For me it came down to this: if you're more interested in the philosophy than the story and characters, why the hell didn't you just write an essay?

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