Friday 2 August 2019

A vengeance sublime: "Oldboy"

To think back to Park Chan-wook's baroque triumph Oldboy, reissued this week to mark the fifteenth anniversary of its arrival in UK cinemas, the mind has first to overcome the obstacle of its leaden English-language remake, the one dull thing Spike Lee has done this millennium. (You feel he only did it to curry favour with the Universal suits who'd backed Do the Right Thing - itself returned to our screens today, on the occasion of its 30th anniversary - and would go on to back BlacKkKlansman.) That dud was doubly bizarre, as the original was nothing if not an eruption of dark, funny, transgressive energy, a self-contained metaphor for a film industry, and perhaps an entire filmmaking continent, coming out swinging after many decades of quietude. In these frames, and in this moment, anything seemed possible: a man could be plucked off the street and locked up for fifteen years, then released with a similar arbitrariness to wreak havoc first on live squid with his teeth, then on an entire corridor of ne'er-do-wells with a clawhammer. (British cinemagoers will recall that the movie first emerged under the late, lamented Tartan Films' Asia Extreme banner, the distribution strand that brought us Park's other Vengeance films, as well as the Ring movies and Takashi Miike's Audition. Here were movies to toughen us all up.)

Revisiting the film this week, I was reminded of how, for a while, around the time of Oldboy and 2002's Drunk on Women and Poetry, its spectacularly dishevelled leading man Choi Min-sik seemed just about the most dynamic actor in the world: an unkempt hairball acting on instinct alone, barrelling into and out of scenes, apparently as much a danger to himself as he was to others. I was reminded of Park's gift for pulling images out of nowhere - Choi's Dae-su unfolding out of a regular-sized suitcase, the giant ant riding the subway, the squid tendrils protruding from the comatose Dae-su's mouth - while spotting intriguing new details: the genteel windmill visible through the (trompe l'oeil?) window of Dae-su's cell, the mass surveillance system that suggests the protagonist isn't the only victim of these kidnappings. Part of Park's greatness is that he fills in this corroborating detail, then moves on - he may have resisted making sequels, but with the film business being what it is, you can bet others would have been tempted, as Lee was to remake it. Wit offsets the brutality, and a lithe sinuousness counteracts the blunt force trauma. An exhausted Dae-su fights his way to the end of that corridor, only for a lift door to ping open, revealing more thugs; Park then cuts to Dae-su exiting the same lift, pushing past his assailants' unconscious forms.

Such editorial brilliance helps to squeeze an awful lot of plot and action into just under two hours, and enables the revelations of the final half-hour to hit home with the power of Greek tragedy: one especially horrendous sound effect still made this viewer, jaded by fifteen subsequent years of screen violence, shrivel in his seat, though the film finishes on a grace note all the more moving for everything we've been through. (Can't resist: this is the vengeance opus the windily affectless Tarantino thinks he's been making these past twenty years.) Certain elements look a little dated in 2019 - the characters' use of chatrooms to track one another is comparable to the Ring movies' reliance on rattly old VHS tapes; and though the narrative makes a point about the ungallant ways in which men are prone to treating women, an eyebrow might now be raised at the film's own manhandling of its various damsels-in-distress - yet the whole remains one of the wildest rides the cinema has given us this century. Park has completed some very stylish and striking work in the years since - the terrific vampire romance Thirst, the underseen Stoker, in stretches of The Handmaiden, and most recently The Little Drummer Girl for TV - yet he's never ventured quite as far out there, nor matched Oldboy's intensity, simultaneously animal and poetic.

Oldboy returns to selected cinemas today, ahead of its DVD rerelease on August 26.

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