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
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
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.
~~ Jules Brenner