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Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2004

Fatal hammer blow to the head

Old Boy

Rating: * (out of 5)
Director: Park Chan Wook
Running time: 120 minutes
Language: Korean
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Quentin Tarantino sang its praises to high heaven at the Cannes film festival and the jury, of which he was chairman, awarded "Old Boy" the Special Jury Prize. That should be enough for most moviegoers to decide whether or not they want to see this film, what with the post-"Kill Bill" schism on Tarantino being about as extreme as that on Kerry/Bush -- but fortunately with less grave consequences for the planet.

News photo
Choi Min Sik in "Old Boy"

"Old Boy," however, literally reeks of Tarantino: It's a stylish yet sadistic revenge flick that doesn't know the meaning of "squeamish." It bears saying right up front that teeth are removed -- not once, but twice -- with the business end of a hammer, and a man severs his own tongue with a pair of scissors. And yet the violence, despite its extremity, is fairly affectless, and as irreal and preposterous as everything else in this comic-book film.

Yes, you heard me right. The film that won the second-highest prize at Cannes this year -- Cannes, the supposed bastion of art and culture resisting the philistines of dumbed-down Hollywood -- was based on a comic book, a series that ran in the J-comic Manga Action. While it doesn't have any big-breasted virgins getting violated by giant shafts of erased space, it is about as sexually immature and hyperviolent as most of the genre.

"Old Boy" starts in the late 1980s, where we meet Oh Dae Su (Choi Min Sik, "Shuri"), a boorish, drunken salaryman who randomly provokes fights until he ends up in jail. After his friend bails him out, Oh mysteriously disappears on the way home. We next meet him locked in a tacky hotel room, snarling and whimpering, where he is to be kept prisoner for the next 15 years. Who has locked him up, and more importantly why, is never revealed.

Oh becomes deranged, which isn't helped by the fact that his captors sporadically gas him and employ hypnotic suggestion to implant ideas in his head. He learns from the TV -- or so it seems -- that he's wanted for the murder of his wife. With the aid of a chopstick, he starts digging a hole in the wall, but shortly before he hacks his way through, he's released as suddenly as he was imprisoned. His former captors contact him, and tell him he has four days to figure out why he was jailed, or they will kill every woman he's ever loved.

Oh's wife is already dead, not that he sheds any tears, for he has a new girl, Mido (Gang Hye Jung), who he meets at a sushi bar where she works as a waitress. It's love at first sight: Mido falls instantly for this nut-case twice her age. Never mind that Oh bears the 1,000-yard stare and the electric-hair look of someone who's been sleeping on the street too long; never mind that he orders live octopus and proceeds to devour it whole, first stuffing the entire head sack into his mouth, then slurping up the still wriggling tentacles; and never mind that he tops this by passing out face first on the counter.

Why? Well, that's not a question we're supposed to ask. In the emotionally retarded world of manga, women are always waiting to throw themselves at nutters; it's part of the fantasy being serviced. The superhuman street-fighting abilities developed by Oh while in captivity round out the package.

The Dr. Evil aspects of the plot also go way over the top, with Oh's mysterious nemesis, the disturbingly baby-faced Yoo Ji Tae (Lee Woo Jin, "One Fine Spring Day"), seemingly everywhere, all the time, whether he's slinking into bed with Mido and Oh Dae Su, or suddenly emerging from a back room to strangle Oh's friend mid-telephone conversation.

In a sense, it's the classic paranoiac fantasy, that everywhere you turn, outrageously omniscient evildoers are plotting you harm. Throw in Oh's hallucinations (ants crawling out of his hand, an obvious nod to Luis Bunuel's "Un chien andalou") and Mido's dream of a giant ant riding the subway, and you've got the kind of bizarre, inexplicable vibe that has won "Old Boy" some admirers.

Director Park Chan Wook ("Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance," another piece of bloody-minded neo-Bronsonism) clearly seeks to be the Asian David Fincher. While he aspires to the twisted mind games of "The Game" and the grotesquerie of "Fight Club," he's totally lacking in the irony, black humor and razor-sharp misanthropy that distinguished the latter. Certainly, Park has an eye for Dr. Seuss-like set design, and he knows how to stage a fight scene with reliable intensity. But when a perfectly rote, exploitation-genre B-movie comes riding into town as Cannes award-winning art, it's time to draw the line.

The acclaim that has come to "Old Boy," along with that for the output of other directors such as Takashi Miike ("Koroshiya Ichi") and Kim Ki Duk ("The Isle"), shows a tendency among critics to reward "transgressive" violence (and sex) for its own sake. Yet gone are the days when the borders of representation needed to be pushed; these days, almost anything can be shown, and the depiction of, say, fish-hooks through a tongue or multiple incest, should only be taken in the context of the film itself.

In the case of "Old Boy," what we've got is essentially "Payback" redux: a stupid story and shallow characters tarted up with a bit of the old ultraviolence. Little wonder that a Hollywood remake is in the works.

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