“The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.
“Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone.”
A glint of blinding sunlight, and we’re on a roof. No, not just on it, but hanging off the side of it. It’s a minute or so before our sight clears, but there’s somebody looking down at us – holding our tie. His is a shocked face, all tazed hair that stands as if to keep away from its owner, and a straggling beard. And, there’s something in his eyes. He looks off to his right, for a moment –
This entry was actually a real point of contention, as a matter of fact. Until just recently, it was supposed to be Spielberg’s 2001 film, A.I. – Artificial Intelligence – I was going to try and reconcile the mess of an ending with all of the rest of the film that had come before, but it’s impossible. Much like trying to push two magnets together, they won’t mix – it’s not the elements of the ending, themselves, less than the way these elements are presented. There’s no real precedent in the film for such an ending, especially after all that had come before. Despite the pleas of my online alma-matter, I just cain’t do it, mang. And, so – I opted to return to my original choice, before I’d finalized the list, that being Chan-Wook’s Oldboy.
Park Chan-Wook’s 2003 release Oldboy is somewhere between a darkly moral fable and a cloudy, dreamy tone poem – and, not for a long while (since 1979, I’d hazard) has an ostensibly simple revenge play been imbued with such veracity and force, not to mention a more than healthy dollop of formal dynamism. It’s actually the second in Chan-Wook’s Revenge trilogy, and sandwiched in between 2002’s Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance and 2005’s Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, both of which are equally well-done if not as inventive (and, I’m aware Oldboy is an adaptation of a successful Japanese manga, but that’s neither here nor there) formally. They’re all stand-alone films, related only by the consistent theme of revenge that drives each of their respective main characters – and this one in particular stands alone from it’s brethren, if only (but not only) because neither of those other films have main characters with as crazy a haircut as this one’s.
We meet the main character, Oh Dae-su, portrayed by Chan-Wook veteran Choi Min-sik, at the start of the film, just as he’s being released from a local police station, and his face as it stands bares little resemblance to the crazy-eyed man on the roof from earlier. He’s pudgy, dressed in a bad suit, and obviously soused to his gills – wearing big, plastic chicken wings on his back, as a present for his young daughter. And out of nowhere, he’s snatched right off the street, in almost plain sight behind his friend. When he awakes, his strange surroundings give him a considerable shock – it’s a reasonably well-furnished hotel room. The ceiling is covered in a series of weird, repetitive patterns, and food only comes by way of a small slot in the bottom of the door. There’s a small kitchenette off to the side, and a light on the wall that dims every so often. And, so begins Oh Dae-su’s fifteen year imprisonment, one that he marks intermittently by sewing tallies into the back of his hand. His only connection to the outside world comes from the small, glowing TV in the middle of the room, which informs him almost nonchalantly that his wife has been murdered and that he is the only real suspect – and every night without fail, he is gassed with happy solution. Time becomes meaningless, but – somewhere around year five, or so – he starts planning. And, punching holes in the wall. Shadow-boxing. Slowly, his face begins to look more and more grizzly, and familiar.
A pit grows in the wall, shallow at first but growing steadily deeper. Soon, there’s just enough room for his hand to reach out – and, meet the open air. And then, in his fifteenth year, he escapes – set loose. And, heaven help those who might get in his way – he’s very handy with his fists and a pair of pliers. All, that is, at first. We begin to realise, as the film progresses, that there’s something else going on, behind the scenes – faces, characters reacting to words remembered but not. People stop to talk to us, and hand us things even though we’ve never seen them before – don’t even think about asking us any questions, they say, because they don’t know a thing. And, even the most minute actions and communications between Oh Dae-su and the film’s other players, right down to the spot on the sidewalk where he’d collapse after a long and bloody battle, seem to have been predicted by the man behind Oh Dae-su’s imprisonment, who isn’t at all shy. But, who is he? And, why has he set his sights on Oh Dae-su? It’s an hour and ten minutes before we find out, and it’s a slow, undulating twist in a tight, already-knotted cord – the relevance of the film’s title becomes obvious, slowly. Oh Dae-su, it seems, “talks too much.”
Quietly going along with Oh Dae-su is Mido, played by Kang Hye-jeong, a young woman in her early twenties or thereabouts, who picks him up after his order of squid just goes to waste and allows him to stay at her apartment during his search for his as-yet-unseen captors. And, there’s a burgeoning relationship there, between the two. “You look familiar,” she says, upon seeing him for the first time, “I’m sure I’ve seen you before.” She’s just sure of it, she says. And, there is something oddly familiar about him, but she chooses to ignore it – passing deja vu’, probably. A glitch in the Matrix. She’s beautifully lonely – and, upon reading Oh Dae-su’s journals from his time in the hotel, and noting the frequent appearances of ants, ants everywhere, she falters and looks away for a minute. “Very lonely people I’ve met,” she tells us, “they’ve all hallucinated ants at one time.”
But, behind and above all of them – there’s the man on the phone. And, at first that’s the only way we know him. It’s only later we see his face, and even then, we don’t recognise him. He’s dressed in an intentionally nondescript fashion, seemingly just one among the crowd on the crosswalk, and our only realisation that “hey, wait! That’s –” comes right after he’s helped Oh Dae-su into the back of a passing vehicle, and stared us straight in the face. But, it goes by quickly, and then he’s waving at us as we’re driven away. For the majority of the film, he appears and acts unaffected by any of the actions that Oh Dae-su embarks upon – he seems to have a knowledge of them, before they begin. It’s only rarely that we get a glimpse of the core underneath, the white-hot sun. But, when it appears, it burns – after his identity as one of Oh Dae-su’s former class-mates has been discerned through the disreputable reputation of his sister, he can only manage to say “my sister was no slut, Oh Daesu,” before choking Daesu’s friend, No Joo-Hwan, to death over his keyboard.
Chan-Wook’s great joy is in his dense, yet fluid mise-en-scene – here, it’s very much like a tone poem, smattered hither and yon with bursts of almost pure, kinetic energy and forwarded by the reptitious use of vibrant-yet-muted color, all warm browns mixing with sickly greens and reds. He plays constantly with overlaying patterns, and repeated lines – on the walls of Oh Dae-su’s hotel room prison, on the roof and windows of his hidden enemy’s penthouse abode. And, always – behind everything else – those same twelve words. And, when these set-pieces come, they’re very much like orchestrated chaos – sweaty, unsure men doing their best to batter this strange, almost equally sweaty guy with the frizzy hair, with the odd tone in his voice. The crowning scene of the film, and the one that has garnered so much attention, comes about forty-five minutes in, after Oh Dae-su has left his mark on the owner of his former prison – stepping out to leave, he finds himself faced down by thirty-some odd of the warden’s bodyguards, many of them not much older than seventeen. He proffers the bleeding and broken man to the crowd, telling them that he needs “medical assistance,” and then sets to work – fighting his way through the hallway with only a claw-hammer as his aid. It’s shot as one long, unending sequence and staged in a manner similar to that found in many of the old side-scrolling beat-em-ups of the Genesis and SNES days. Filmed in seventeen takes over a period of three days, and with a complete lack of editing, Park Chan-Wook’s choreographed mayhem is allowed full stage. And, while there are many fight sequences in the film, and all of them filmed with an equal measure of visual aplomb, this is my favorite – perhaps one of the most well done visual representations of “Man Against The World” of the first four years of the decade. And, as the last shirtless, sweaty guy falls to his knees, Oh Dae-su looks up – weathered, dazed and bleeding. He notices something off-screen, and begins to smile – a wide, face-splitting smile. There’s an elevator that’s just sat down, and it’s packed with more of the same – guys with crowbars and lengths of pipe. And, him with just a claw-hammer, and a knife in his back, too.
“Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone.”
That same leering, almost-haunting smile is repeated several times, throughout the film – the first time being as Oh Dae-su receives his first dose of laughing gas inside his prison cell, at the start of his fifteen year imprisonment, his hair bedraggled and shaggy, now a beast – and, it informs the main character’s philosophy that he’s adapted, since his stay in the hotel room. He brings it out into the world – and, every time he passes some trauma, the smile is dragged out of him. Even when he’s on the verge of getting his teeth pulled out – by the warden, who he’d done the same to, earlier on – all he can do is laugh, and laugh loud.
There’s been talk recently of remaking the film, with Steven Spielberg directing and Will Smith as the American equivalent to Oh Dae-su – and, I’ll be the odd man out and say that this interests me. It’s not as if Spielberg can’t “do dark,” which seems to be the main concern among the remake’s critics. And, that they’re opting to instead base their film off of the movie’s Japanese source material instead of remaking the film straight on is another good sign, as well. And, it’s also a safe choice – the manga is nowhere near as disturbing or implicative as the film is. The basic plot is the same – that of a man being imprisoned in a hotel for a number of years (it’s ten, here) and then being released to find his captors, but that’s all that’s really the same, between the two. And, while Spielberg can cut deep when he chooses, I don’t really think he has the heart to leave a film on such an ambiguously pessimistic note as Chan-Wook has, here – on the smile that has often masked a face that’s just covered in grief, throughout the film. It’s an interesting and potent irony, on several levels – Oh Dae-su has raged through the entire film and racked his brain with guilt over not being able to remember this deed he’d done to provoke his fate. But, at the end of the film, Oh Dae-su’s great sadness comes from being able to remember, and not being able to say anything about it.
Or, at least that’s what I got from it.
There’s a myriad of interesting and well thought-out analyses of the film out there around the internet. And, of the two I’ve found most interesting, there is “Park Chan-Wook’s World of Cinematic Introspection: The Subtext of Cinematic Space in Oldboy,” by Boris Trbric, and Film For the Soul’s own review of the film, found here.
Also, the second image of this article comes from DVDBeaver.com, it must be said. And, what a fantastic screen capture it is.
Glenn Health’s own choice for his number eight spot, Andrew Stanton’s 2008 film WALL-E, can be found here.