Cinema Signal:

Korean Cinema:
The New Hong Kong

. "Oldboy" (... with apologies concerning Korean name order)

Director and co-writer Park Chanwook seems to think effective filmmaking is a matter of packing as many film genres into one storyline as possible. That may work for luggage on a long trip but it spells desperation in a movie. Somehow, in Film 101, he never learned that less is more.

In what is essentially a mystery thriller-puzzle, genre references come and go like wandering sheep. A sprinkle of Ingmar Bergman here, a dash of Dashiell Hammett there; a bit of Franz Kafka here, Kurosawa there. It's a virtual parade of snatches of Chanwook's top ten with some good chop-socky action thrown in.

All of it is in the service of a sordid, strung out tale with a unique story hook that is Kafka-esque, Bergmanesqe. Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi), a rowdy man working off his intoxication in a police station is released and then kidnapped. He lands in a motel-like room that becomes his prison for 15 years. Suddenly, he finds himself on the outside, not only sober but in better physical condition. Handsomer, more muscular. His quest becomes to find and punish the person responsible for taking away so much of his life.

What he discovers, however, is that he's still under the control of his jailer and that he has merely been released to a prison larger in scope. The illusion of freedom is part of the penance his persecutor is inflicting on him. Even falling in love with Mi-do (Gang Hye-jung) has been predetermined as part of the mind game of revenge in play. And when he finally comes face to face with Lee Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae), his warped tormenter, his old school chum gives him the chance for true freedom (or death) in five days if he can determine the reason for his incarceration and life-altering struggle.

As distracting as the filmmaking style may be, as impossible as it may be for Chan-wook to avoid amalgamating his auteur-hero influences into his movie, the essential talent of the cast cuts through the excess of technique. With awkward unintended laughs along the way, enough interest builds in the solution to the mystery-puzzle and the hero's destiny to hold you for the melodramatic outcome (to Viennese strings). Which may not be altogether satisfying in the end, but that's an individual matter. If Chan-wook's example is an indicator, we might well be expecting some intriguing (and more disciplined) material out of South Korea.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  




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Choi Min-sik and Gang Hy-jung
Lovers with controlled destinies


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