I put this movie on an “I’ll get there” type of pedestal for about four years, because it’s the favorite of my Most Trusted Media Recommendations Source. (I’m not naming names.) I felt like I needed to work my way up to it somehow. By what means, I still don’t know, because I’m not even sure I was ready for it when I did watch it. The Spike Lee joint came and went, too, without me throwing that my $10-14.50. I guess it just hit me one day: I need some Korean subtitles to kick-start my brain.
According to my very detailed internet research (read: Wiki, obviously), Park Chan-wook, the director, and his fellow writers, Hwang Jo-yoon and Im Joon-hyeong, adapted this thing from Japanese manga. God, that must have been hard. The story is incredible, and twisted, both in its chronology and in its contents. But the finished product really is a masterwork, albiet one that might be difficult to swallow for some folks.
There’s some dark, dark shit in here. I’m a squirmy person once I see tentacles of any kind, and the octopus scene (I shall say nothing more than that) barely made me flinch compared to what came later. It’s not necessarily about visuals here, either, though the visuals are stunning and stylistically varied. It’s all about mental anguish instead, and it’s other-worldly. Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), released from 15 years of inexplicable, torturous solitary confinement, seeks out his daughter (who was 4 when he was kidnapped) and his captor. His captor, Lee Woo-jin, played by the insanely attractive Yoo Ji-tae, is basically three steps ahead of him all the time, though, setting him up to be in the hands of Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung), a woman from Dae-su’s past. Yoo is so physically captivating that I kept forgetting to hate him as I watched the movie — his eyes are so still and kind, despite the evil that his character perpetrates on Dae-su. And Mi-do has such a calming presence over Dae-su that it’s easy to forget about… trying to figure out what she’s all about. By the time you reach that point, alongside Dae-su, you feel as wiped-out and backstabbed and blindsided as he does.
And yet there’s a certain lightheartedness to the movie. It’s in the coloration, and the confidence that oozes through the screen. I sensed a Tarantino-iness here, perhaps because ol’ QT might be an influence on the director. Coincidentally, QT was the president of the jury when Oldboy won at Cannes in 2004, and he dug it majorly. Park doesn’t always let emotional moments lie, especially early on. There are tons of quick cuts and jumps, especially at the start of the film, which heighten the intensity and speed up the pace. He saves the lingering shots for the end, when emotional reactions have a bigger payoff. And he plays with different styles, as I said before. Even though everything is logistically believable, there’s a supernatural element lurking in the background. The nightmare that Dae-su lived — and continues to live — is far too mysterious to be devised by a human.
I can’t recommend this movie highly enough, though I would not recommend it to everyone. It’s not just for people who like “foreign films” or “action films” or “film noir.” It’s for a special kind of viewer, who finds pleasure in delicate, deliberate mindfuckery.