You’ve never been shy when it comes to voicing your opinion of movies or movie critics, so I won’t beat around the bush either. Last spring, when you served as jury president at the Cannes Film Festival, word spread quickly that one of the films was by far your personal favorite — and it wasn’t Fahrenheit 9/11. Rather, it was Korean director Chan-Wook Park’s Oldboy, a movie that reportedly had been added late to the festival lineup in an effort to appease both your own taste for end-of-its-tether cinema and the festival’s wish to season its diet of stately auteur movies with a dollop of gritty genre fare. To none of which, I hasten to add, do I object. There is, though, one small thing that’s been gnawing at me since Cannes, and now that Oldboy is opening in Los Angeles theaters, it seems as good a time as any to bring it up. Put simply, in my humble opinion, Oldboy sucks.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I’m not a great Chan-Wook Park fan, that the cult following that has sprung up around him and his films flat-out mystifies me. Though I rather liked his 2000 hit Joint Security Area, in which a textbook police procedural became a way of addressing some very thorny matters of Korean national identity, by the time Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) came around, Park seemed to have ensconced himself in a bubble of self-conscious cool and shocks for shocks’ sake, particularly in regard to the detachment (bordering on pleasure) with which he subjected his characters to disembowelment, electrocution, et al. Oldboy strikes me as a further progression in that unpleasant direction, with Park completely stripping away whatever social commentary underpinned the action in those two earlier films, leaving us with a not-at-all-fun house of sadism and perversity.
To read “The Tarantino Factor,”
Of course — as you know perhaps better than anyone else — we happen to be living at a time when all things Asian and extreme, from manga to anime to the way outré offerings of Takashi Miike, are enjoying a halcyon moment in the fickle universe of fanboy enthusiasms. Yet that still doesn’t fully explain why imported DVDs of Oldboy are flying off U.S. retailers’ shelves faster than they can stock them, or why Park’s film is already ranked by users of the venerable Internet Movie Database as the 93rd greatest movie of all time. What puzzles me even more, dear Quentin, is your own strong affection for this particular picture.
We all know, of course, that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and your influence can be found all over Oldboy. The very premise, you’ll have noted, is basically a gender-reversed spin on Kill Bill: Businessman Dae-Su (Min-Sik Choi) is released from a 15-year term of suspended animation as suddenly and inexplicably as he was plunged into it. Assisted by a beautiful celebrity chef named Mido (Hye-Jung Gang), he begins searching for his missing daughter and the persons responsible for his wife’s murder. Then there are those impish sight gags (like the dotted white line that appears onscreen, tracing the trajectory of a blunt object from Dae-Su’s hand to his enemy’s skull) and an all-too-familiar indulgence in the comedy of bodily dismemberment (which Park underscores with Vivaldi instead of Steeler’s Wheel).
But even as imitations go, Oldboy doesn’t measure up — it’s like that Canal Street Rolex that stops ticking the second you’ve rounded the corner onto Broadway. When Park stages his bouts of comic book–inspired violence, like the much-ballyhooed scene in which Dae-Su combats a hallway full of opponents with a ball-peen hammer, they lack the deadpan elegance and staccato energy of similar scenes in your own films. They just kind of hang there on the screen, flat and listless, much like Dae-Su himself, who has none of the gravitas of Kill Bill’s Bride or Dogville’s Grace — two avenging angels for the movie-history books. For those characters, vengeance is a persistent moral quandary. For Dae-Su and his infernal tormentors (by which I mean to include Park himself), it seems little more than a game, the prize being a “twist” ending that’s surprising only for how callow and unearned it is.
I could go on, Quentin, but if I did I’d be risking the ire of those who regularly accuse critics of giving too much away in their reviews. I’d rather close with a nod toward the many genuinely talented young filmmakers who have helped to make South Korea a world-cinema hot spot over the last decade. Among them, one case merits a special mention — that of Hong Sang-Soo, who is three years Park’s elder and whose intimate, Rohmeresque relationship pictures couldn’t, on the surface, appear more radically different from Park’s brand of blunt-impact cinema.
Look closer, though, and you’ll see that Hong, in a picture like Woman Is the Future of Man (which, you’ll recall, competed against Oldboy in Cannes), is getting at similar matters of lust, jealousy and contemptible desire so directly, and truthfully, it leaves me incapable of feeling any sympathy for Mr. Park.
OLDBOY | Directed by CHAN-WOOK PARK | Written by JO-YUN HWANG, JOON-HYUNG LIM and PARK, from an original story by TSUCHIYA GARON and MINEGISHI NOBUAKI | Produced by DONG-JOO KIM | Released by Tartan Films | At the Nuart