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Old Boy (Chan-wook Park, 2003)
Korean director Chan-wook Park follows up his Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance with Old Boy, the second in a projected trilogy about revenge. A leap in ambition, at least visually, over Sympathy, the new film is slightly less satisfying overall. Though itís often stylistic exciting, it aims for Shakespearean themes that its thinly sketched characters canít quite justify. The filmís start finds lead character Dae-su (Min-sik Choi) imprisoned for unknown reasons in a gangster-run detention center, with a television his only link to the outside world (and a gross distortion of it at the same time). For the first thirty minutes of the movie, which cover the fifteen years of Dae-suís imprisonment, Park achieves an uncannily claustrophobic atmosphere. As his protagonistís mind is reshaped by prolonged exposure to television and frequent reprogramming sessions, the movie effectively transports the viewer into the mind of an obsessed madman.
With a constantly moving camera and a dingy look that recalls the work of David Fincher, Old Boy is, at least for its first half, a tour de force for its director. Frequently, surprising and rapid CGI effects disturb the balance in the camera setups and thereís a great little gag or two where what seems to be the filmís score is revealed to be a diagetic sound effect. Best of all, thereís an elaborately choreographed fight scene, involving an entire gang of thugs, shown in one long tracking shot. Behind all of its bravado, though itís got a strange sensibility, often placing gross humor alongside scenes of extreme violence. Given its similarities to the Kill Bill films, itís no wonder that it appealed to the Quentin Tarantino-headed Cannes jury. That being said, Old Boy comes up short in comparison. Tarantinoís movie had a day-glo ebullience to it, whereas Parkís has a sort of manga miserablism at work. The half-mad Dae-su looks beat down by the world, and as a result heís rarely charismatic. He certainly doesnít have the Brideís glamour. Watching this, it becomes obvious how much Uma Turman brought to Kill Bill. Furthermore, even though Kill Bill yanked the audienceís chain as much as Old Boy does, the shifts in tone there were easier to weather because of the chapter structure Tarantino used. Parkís wide variations in style mostly serve to keep the audience on edge, though there are times where the movieís energy seems to get the better of it. The emotional meaning of the scenes occasionally gets obscured by the flurry of motion. Itís an exciting ride, but itís not at all a resonant one, and the only way to get into it is to work on its amped up terms. As a result, Old Boy is an exhausting viewing experience for what is essentially a popcorn movie. The style is so aggressive that it doesnít forgive the complacent viewer. That stylistic variety is probably fortunate, though, because the plot it accompanies is a convoluted mess that requires your full attention.
Watching Old Boyís plot unfold, one feels a mess of contradictory impulses, making it a unique experience, but not so much a pleasant one. Its priorities constantly change as it transforms from paranoid thriller, to bloodthirsty action flick, to romantic tearjerker, to high drama. What the plot initially presents as a quest for truth becomes distorted into a hunt for blood, leading into a ho-hum examination of the existential concerns (Life outside of prison is just a bigger prison, are we truly in control of our impulses, etcÖ) that swirl around the movieís topic. These larger themes are a bit forced, given the delights the movie takes in showing off its style and the humor thatís liberally inserted throughout. Old Boy is a movie that comes on strong and peaks about an hour in. Afterwards, itís less kinetic by far, usually doling out exposition instead of action. Unfortunately, as the movie begins to focus more on character, it never bothers to really develop its shallow villain, which unnecessarily cheapens its eventual plot twists. Such as it is, I think Iím better able to appreciate the impressive set pieces here out of context than as part of the bigger picture. Still, even if Old Boy only intermittently coheres into a whole, there are enough must-see moments here, that the film is sure to become a cult hit.