Oldboy directed by Park Chan-wook, written by Park, Hwang Jo-yun, Lim Joon-hyung, with Choi Min-sik, Yoo Ji-tae, Gang Hye-jung, Dhi Dae-han. 119 minutes. An Odeon Films release. Subtitled. Opens Friday (April 15) at the Varsity. For times, see page 104. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Park city, Utah - In the corner of a dark bar on a cold afternoon way up in the Utah mountains, a Korean director sits huddled with his posse, explaining vengeance to foreigners.
Oldboy won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes last year, thrusting director Park Chan-wook onto the world stage.
At Sundance, this is what the world stage looks like, clusters of filmmakers gathered around press microphones and dried-out carrot sticks, generating buzz.
Park's hot-button military drama, Joint Security Area, set records at the Korean box office. He followed that with Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, which abandoned the popcorn crowd to seduce festival audiences.
Now comes Oldboy, about a man kidnapped and imprisoned for 15 years, then released to take his vengeance. His main tool is a claw hammer. Oldboy carries the wicked crunch of Park's commercial work plus the network of psychological and political themes that mark his artier fare.
Buzz is a given. Star Choi Min-sik walks through the film like an existential Charles Bronson. He's the sort of remorseless macho type that's led the Japanese to fetishize Korean men.
In Oldboy, revenge isn't just sweet, it's sexy.
"Like the villain says in the movie," Park muses, "when you are into revenge, it's good for your mental health. You have something to concentrate on. But when it's done, when you have your revenge, you have nothing, and you can't get back what you've lost. The pleasure of revenge is in the process."
Park laughs off any suggestion that the stark, extreme vengeance of a man imprisoned for 15 years stands as any kind of political allegory for the generation that survived Korea's dictatorship in the 1980s.
"Oldboy has no political subtext," he says, "but it's not purely a genre film either. I'm interested in genre, but I think making just that is a little boring. From the script stage to the end I kept thinking, how would a thriller director make this film? Then I tried to make it different."
He does, however, credit the dictatorship with producing the current wave of Korean star filmmakers that includes him and Kim Ki-duk. Under the dictatorship, he says, films aimed for "lots of rebellious realism. Today's new directors are more focused on cinema itself, on auteur cinema.
"They lived through the dictatorship and understand social issues, but they're also fans of cinema. They combine those two, and people around the world seem to like it."
OLDBOY (Park Chan-wook) Rating: NNNN
Here's a wicked, stylish Korean film about a man framed for murder, imprisoned for 15 years, then released to take especially nasty revenge. He's armed with righteous rage and a claw hammer.
Oldboy won last year's Cannes Grand Jury prize, confirming Park (JSA, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance) as one of the leaders of Korea's ferocious new wave. He pitches the story somewhere between Hitchcock and Kafka, but plays the allegory lightly, going for pure thrills instead.
Whether it's dental vengeance or a meal of massive live octopus, this movie is packed with shock images. And that's part of its weakness. Although there's no doubt Park's visual craft is superb, he sometimes goes for surprise over logic. Star Choi Min-sik grounds all the fireworks, walking through Oldboy like an existential Charles Bronson.