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A look back on the various movies that recall why I like movies any. This week, it’s yet another Chan-Wook Park movie

Introducing the Chan-Wook Park film Oldboy (2005) to an unsuspecting filmgoer is an experience in itself, almost rivalling in personal satisfaction the first time watching. You’re watching the person next to you just as much as the screen, anticipating the reaction. Essentially, Oldboy operates in this way like a horror movie, but with only one big scare at the end.

It’s not easy to forget how powerful an experience this is. The twist is shocking and will be shocking even to someone who’s read too many times how shocking it is because it appeals to a universal horror that not only grates your soul, but pierces it with the unwavering power of social taboo and general human distaste. The ending will kick your ass, unless you guess it, which I’ve heard is a reality, but I don’t believe it. I can’t imagine sitting through the whole movie anticipating the reveal but knowing it – I wouldn’t believe the creators to be that crazy, but then again, that tooth did just get pulled out, that hallway fight scene was without cut…

The movie has such a solid story that it is a joy to see it play out and knowing in advance the beats and when certain actions are going down, just like its predecessor. Repeated viewings are recommended, though I was more than hesitant to do so myself, because the sex scenes in the movie rival in straight disturbing the movie Irreversible. In fact, the first sex scene, knowing already what’s actually going on, is incredibly intense. The editing, the lighting, the music, and the acting all work to create something very unsettling.

But that of course is true of all the movie. The editing I think is a far cry from the very slow, deliberately shot and paced Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. Sure, there are still moments like the editless hallway fight, but the first fight scene is more conventional, and it works, where he’s seeing if 15 years of imaginary training can be put to use. Apparently it can, and the scene is shot with the shakycam practice that is a staple of American action cinema in the post-90s eras. But it’s done with the careful attention to product that is consistent with every scene, and doesn’t lose focus of the action or try to involve the audience members themselves by dizzying or naueseating them.

Clever editing also comes into play much later, when we’re cutting back and forth between the leadup to the final showdown and the good-bye between tragic lovers. As the action ramps up the cutting increases, and the highlight here is the toothbrush fatalities. “Grab him!” *grabs brush, hotel* *snaps brush, penthouse* *stabs guy, penthouse*

The ending of the movie is a beatiful demonstration of the power of cinema. We’re already on edge because of the reveal, and everything that happens after – the fighting and death of Mr. Han, the begging of forgiveness, the tongue cutting, the last futile revenge of Oh Dae Su, the reminiscing and death of Woo-Jin – would be hard-hitting enough, but brings the film to a deafening peak that ends with the snap of a gunshot. It’s a technical tour de force, to recycle words I think used by a critic to describe this very movie; every technical aspect dovetails magnificently.

I’m not even going to mention what happens after Woo-Jin’s suicide. It works as a good break to exhale with, but creates an unnecesary ambiguous scenario. As a huge anti-fan of the ambiguous ending, I justify it to myself by noting that in reality, it doesn’t matter whether or not they can ever love each other again, at least, in the entire scope of the narrative. Is this a fault? Possibly, but it’s one that is embarassingly minimized by everything else in the movie. In my opinion, Oldboy is the greatest movie that came out this decade. Not my favorite, though my favorite was by the same director. It’s a two hour display of sheer talent and ingenuity, an artist’s demo reel with a Shakespearean tragedy narrative. Well, a Shakespearean tragedy with a low bodycount. Oh Dae Su might as well be dead though, based on what ending you choose for him.

In terms of lasting impressions, Oldboy will stick with you, and not just because of the gut punch twist that is revealed so beautifully, but because of some of the images on display here. The violence is shocking but real, recalling Scorsese or Tarantino – Woo-Jin killing Dae-Su’s friend with a broken CD is a brilliant character moment that’s punctuated by extreme violence. I wouldn’t say that it ever reaches the brutal heights of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, but it doesn’t have to. The psychological terrorism extends to the audience perhaps more than any cinema violence could – this is truly the evolution of a great director.



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