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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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Major spoilers for The Fly

I never could fully appreciate, as an audience member, just how frightening Cronenberg’s The Fly was until I watched it with someone else. By myself, I could acknowledge it as a classic 80’s gorefest, but with a difference, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with John Carpenter’s The Thing. The dead monkey, the nail scene, the silencing of Brundle – these are all great shocks. I think I was just too swept along by the climax of the movie to really recall all of these moments. Then I watched the film with the director’s commentary, and hearing the director explain how each trick was done certainly took some of the punch away, but that’s expected of director’s commentaries.

Finally I watched The Fly with Podcast Co-Host, who I’ve been able to spring one or two effectively gruesome movies on in the past – I think Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance was pretty striking to him (as it should be to any sane person), and Crank 2: High Voltage definitely twisted him. I mean, the guy cuts his own nipples off. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to watch the scene in its entirety without turning away. But no reaction I’ve beheld of this guy has matched his reaction to Cronenberg’s masterful genre-mix of horror, science-fiction, drama, and comedy.

Geena Davis’ character, Veronica, goes to visit the abortion clinic with Stathis. They’re talking with the guy from Videodrome and he’s like “Are you sure?” and she’s like “I need this thing out of my body!” and he’s like “Okay.” Then we cut and the three are just standing in the next room, a very awkward cut that kind of pulls you out of the movie. I, in the audience, said something to the effect of ‘God, that was an awkward shot.’ Of course, I was expecting it, as I had just seen the film with commentary days earlier. Andy responds with, “yeah the filmmaking could use some spicing up.”

And there he sat, the critic, when Brundlefly crashes through the window and BAM! He jolted upright in an instant, releasing a quick “Oh my God!” before jumping out of his seat and towards the exit. He caught himself, and eased back. I laughed my ass off. I knew there was a shocking scene coming up, but damn, I didn’t expect that reaction. Such perfect timing. It was almost as if Cronenberg had inserted a kind of technically awkward scene to take you out of the movie, and then scare you right back in. In that moment, Andy went from critic to audience member.

It’s a strange beast, The Fly. When I watch it, I’m totally into it. As soon as it’s over, I’m kind of like, ‘well, it was pretty good.’ It exceeds in doing things that are amazingly effective during the film, but aren’t particularly memorable, like small character moments and disgusting horror sequences. I wouldn’t reflect back on The Fly like I would The Matrix or the Alien movies, just thinking to myself, damn those are good. And yet, this is one of my favorite movies. It’s really strange.

In terms of horror movies, I can name a few that would make a personal top twenty list – Jacob’s Ladder, Alien, The Thing, The Mist, and The Fly. Jacob’s Ladder is the philosophical and intense thriller, one of those quieting experiences that I would consider The Fountain to be akin to. The Thing is a classic, absolute craziness with Kurt Russell and Keith David. But The Fly works not for what it leaves you with, but what it does when it’s on, when it has you.

For example, I really dig the character Stathis Boranis. He’s a complicated man, and he starts off so easy to hate. He’s a stalker, a man fond of sexual harassment, and kind of a jerk. But as the movie progresses, we find that his love for Veronica is very real, just as real as Seth’s. And when the relationship between Veronica and Seth starts to break down, Stathis is right there. When Seth becomes the monster of the tale, Stathis takes the role of monster hunter, and this is an amazing moment, as he enters the laboratory armed with an antique-looking rifle. He’s taken a complete 180, and we’re actually behind this guy.

His characterization was so important because the emotional momentum in this movie is something that shifts constantly. We need to feel for his character as a broken hearted, hopeless romantic, in order to support his role as hero in the end, and when the Brundlepod struggles forward a horrific fusion of flesh and metal, he does so only to have himself killed – the final journey – and we discover that there are no heroes or villains, that there never were.

Indeed the main theme of the movie is man’s struggle with death, which perfectly adapts to The Fly storyline because we have a scientist battling against the unknown, an obvious metaphor made visually apparent and unique through the fly metamorphosis. A scientist loses his great mind over time, and it goes back to that idea that there are no heroes or villains – aging happens to us all; we can only be people in relation to it. When he becomes monstrous, it is a final, futile resistance to the inevitable, and we learn that coming to grips and finally accepting death is a better option that striving against it, as the latter option sees the harm of others.

Of course, neither is really a good thing, and this is why the ending is tragic, but not as outlandish as the premise of a man turning into a common housefly might inform. Because the science-fiction is grounded in the universal cold realities of aging and death, the effective dramatic elements are not left-field natives. I fully believe that the criticism of this film that ‘it tries to be too many things at once, dramatic, horrific, tragic, funny, but succeeds at none’ (jack of all trades, ace of none), is entirely superficial. I believe this because it’s easy to pass this over as a greasy horror flick.

Cronenberg himself even admits that the movie is quite extreme for a financially successful mainstream film (his most successful until A History of Violence, assumedly), and he was shocked to find how brutal some of the stuff was upon a repeat viewing many years after its creation. It certainly shows – the monkey in the telepod that didn’t quite make it but isn’t quite dead is only the beginning, and it really ramps up from there a la Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, which hits you halfway through the film and never lets up. The gore and effects were all practical, which for nowadays means that they possess an eerie quality. The melting of Stathis’ hand and leg are particularly effective, and the final metamorphosis, where all we see is the legs of Brundle and Veronica as they move towards the pod, and pieces of flesh fall all around them is intense.

That should however never distract from what is at the core of the film. In fact, I never could understand, and it is a recurring lament here on the Dreck Fiction, why people hate on movies that have good special effects in claim that they ‘detract from the story/characters/drama.’ In some cases, movies could theoretically be better off hiding special effects, but not in the case of The Fly. This is a case similar to Terminator 2, where the visual effects are a practical necessity, because they help construct the characters. The T-1000 uses the special effects, he isn’t used by them. Like in Videodrome, we can’t just be left to our imaginations to devise the things depicted here – it’s crucial we see them.

The horror we experience is the horror that the characters do. The scarier the images are, the greater the dramatic reflection in Seth and company. The two require each other, and this is what makes The Fly unique. Most horror movies, mostly the contemporary ones, draw fright from suspense. Here, the horror is out of an investment in the characters. We don’t want Seth to change, and when he does, it hurts because it’s so horrifying.

A good example of the masterfully engineered horror in the movie is a moment alluded to already, when Veronica accidentally tears off his jaw. Seth is trying to get Veronica into the Telepod, and his mutations have gotten so bad that is eyeballs are melting out of his head. There’s so much going on in this scene, where Stathis is dying in a corner, we have this countdown sequence initiated with an absolutely terrifying implication behind it (the fusion of Seth and Veronica), Seth is losing himself more and more to the monster, and finally, Veronica rips off his jaw in an attempt to get away, and lets out a scream of true terror. In this moment, out focus is compressed into a singular area, whereas before our minds were ticking with all sorts of terrifying what-ifs and of course, we were being affected by the visceral energy on the screen.

Powerful horror here is backed by emotional impact and the refined filmmaking of a true master, a literarily and technically affluent mind. Recently I sat through The Strangers, which was truly awful. It was ninety minutes of nothingspace – that is what the movie was about. In this movie, the characters crept around the house waiting to be scared by the masked killers, and this is where suspense kills the horror movie. There’s so much empty space where we’re just waiting for something to happen that the filmmakers must have forgotten what ‘content’ meant. It’s the antithesis of a movie like The Fly, which is all meat. Mutated, hairy fly meat.

Something that David Cronenberg stressed in the making of The Fly was each difference his film would have to the original adaptation of the short story. He wanted his scientist to be unmarried, his transformation gradual, and his themes… Cronenbergian. The most significant change of course was the actual fly metamorphosis, which is absent in the original movie. One could not imagine the 1986 version with a hastened transformation – the movie’s power comes out of the scientist’s struggle to rationalize and defeat what ails him, which of course as we know, is death. (Not AIDS)

It’s interesting – I watched a video review of both movies, where the man behind the Angry Video Game Nerd webseries commented that the original film benefitted from the scientist being flyualized instantly, and not being able to speak. He must find alternate methods, like writing on a chalkboard or using a typrewriter, to communicate. And then we have David Cronenberg, who believes that the scientist must be able to speak for most of the movie, until of course he gets his jaw ripped off during his final transformation. This reinforces the movie as a tragedy, and it is more emotionally distressing than frightening. Both approaches are sound, but I know which is more popular, and in my opinion, the remake is better for the revision.

The Fly is a great movie and a standout in both the horror and science-fiction genres. Rarely do either tap into such an evocative emotional force, while also managing to keep your mind ticking in classic SF fashion. Would I ever watch it again? Of course, but not before any other in my top twenty. Strange, for sure, but that’s just the name of the Cronenberg game.

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