J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Original Oldboy, Beware of Cheap Knock-offs

As president of the jury at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, Quentin Tarantino lobbied hard on behalf of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, but his fellow jurors were dead set on giving the Palme d’Or to Fahrenheit 9/11.  You have to wonder how well that politically motivated decision sits with Kathleen Turner and Tilda Swinton, in retrospect.  In contrast, Tarantino’s judgment looks sound as a pound, particularly in light of a once prominent director’s decision to remake Oldboy in a desperate attempt to maintain his relevancy.  Viewers should accept no substitutes when Park’s original Oldboy (trailer here) returns to New York theaters tomorrow.

Oh Dae-sul is completely awful at being a husband, father, and businessman.  Generally, he is an all around despicable human being, but he will pay.  After a drunken bender, Oh wakes up confined to a seedy hotel room, which is actually a cell in an underground prison.  For the next fifteen years, he will remain secretly confined there, while his nemesis frames him for the murder of his wife.

For no apparent reason, Oh is suddenly released, but it quickly becomes clear the shadowy mastermind has simply moved on to the next phase of his scheme.  With his daughter adopted by foreign parents, the solitary pariah crashes with Mi-do, the young sushi chef in the restaurant he passed out in.  As Oh pursues vengeance and answers, the question becomes “why” rather than “who.” Of course, he will be returning to that prison and he’s bringing a hammer (nope, Spike didn’t come up with that bit).

Arguably, Oldboy is the perfect film for Thanksgiving because it features one of the most memorable celebratory meals ever filmed.  You’ll know it when you see it.  Yes, it has its share of graphic violence and shocking subject matter that would be spoilery to reveal.  However, the psychological torment is far more unsettling than the physical beatdowns.  By the time it reaches its climax, Oldboy absolutely strips Oh emotionally bare—and he is not the only one to have his psyche ripped open in the process.

Starting with Oldboy and continuing with Nameless Gangster and New World, Choi Min-sik has staked a claim as one of the world’s preeminent screen actors, doing the sort of work Robert De Niro should have done instead of slumming in dozens of Meet the Parents sequels.  Choi has that sort of magnetic presence and visceral physicality. Thanks to his powerhouse turn, Oldboy rises to the level of classical tragedy.  He is nicely abetted by the ethereal Kang Hye-jung as the disarmingly waifish Mi-do.

Part noir and part fairy tale, Oldboy is defiantly ambiguous at times, but never nihilistic.  It has an indescribable vibe light years removed from most filmmakers’ comfort zones.  Remaking (or re-conceiving or whatever term they might want to use) it is a highly questionable proposition, doomed to failure whenever hipper audiences compare it to the original.  Avoid shoddy counterfeits and check out Park Chan-wook’s Old Boy.  Highly recommended for the adventurous, it opens tomorrow (11/29) in New York at the Quad Cinemas and streams (now with subtitles) on Netflix.

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