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by Scott Liam Soper

Oh Dae Su, fills up the screen intensely and somehow you know a whole lot more than the standard Asian melodrama will unfold...

EDITOR'S NOTE - This piece is intended for those who have seen "OLD BOY" or who will see it, not for those who want to read a review to make a decision about seeing it or even worse so they can read a review then pretend to have seen it.

One way that you know you are in a small town in Korea is when you go to the McDonalds and bulgogi burgers are the only thing on the grab-rack that are ready to eat. Another deduction about small town life here is just because it got second place at the all mighty Cannes Film Festival ain't no reason why the film OLD BOY has been off the shelf three days in a row when I go to the DVD bong. Kyoung Ju, population 300,000, has one McDonald's and two DVD bongs and is also the place of the Ancient Shilla Kingdom with its own sacrosanct reputation as the cultural storage house of Korea. A DVD bong is a spacious private viewing room with a wall size screen and amenities like air con. It's a place where modern lovers can get a bit of intimacy when the monkey glands get going and where even someone traveling through a special town alone can watch current Korean movies offered with English subtitles.

On the third day of trying to watch OLD BOY I came back two hours after it's last screening and everything was ready to go. Immediately a slightly malcontent male character, Oh Dae Su, fills up the screen intensely and somehow you know a whole lot more than the standard Asian melodrama will unfold. He is drunk in the police station telling the cops where to shove their nightstick and they let him go when a friend intervenes. Outside now, quickly Oh Dae Su disappears and is taken captive. Perhaps incidentally or perhaps not, a modern American question that is often asked by anyone with their own sort of rebellious nature is whether to go through life medicated or not. It is a choice there. Of course OLD BOY is a Korean movie directed by Park Chan Wook, and it is a really smart and captivating scene when Oh Dae Su is nightly medicated to sleep {with valium gas} showing just how captive he is.

Sitting in the DVD bong there is lots of loud and abrupt technological noise which to me at least seems like a concession to viewers who spend the first five minutes in captivity with Oh Dae Su seeing how he develops his writing and other prison habits. Anyone might guess that this plot is so mysterious and winding that they might be getting themselves into an overtly literary film. In fact, there is an actual MTV music video montage that documents Korea's rise in economic terms and general self esteem. 'Documents' is the right the verb as this happens early in the film and then the film itself stays with characters left outside the hoopla and the rhetoric of new money plus nationalism prosperity. The story telling itself skillfully probes past anything and anybody who would want to make some sort of rags to riches, mouthful of fable. The film's oft-seen trailer of Oh Dae Su gulping a raw octopus in front of his soon to be girlfriend Mido (who is truly meant to be his very own) because he --wanted to eat something alive-- might be a gross out scene to some but I couldn't keep my eyes of the big collars of the folk in the restaurant and thinking how everyone in the place looks a helluva lot cooler than the people in swanky Gangnam do.

The story of OLD BOY is told in the non-linear fashion and with the quota of cheap tricks. When the hypnotist comes in to Oh Dae Su's cell (one room at a cheap hotel) to put him under and then works him over with a suggestion that puts him in a suitcase somewhere out in the country you can get the impression that this is a prisoner of the mind narrative. And after the phobia-inviting spider egg under the skin torture scene works or not the feeling might be that at best OLD BOY seems like art-house-jism, "Oh wow this is something that happened to a friend of mine in Vancouver or Toronto" is a phrase you might expect to hear anywhere during the first hour of the film from your ironic-foreigner- DJ type living in Seoul. But, whatever, when you encounter movies or books like this (more and more seem to be made everyday) the discerning response is to wait and see if it, the story, is worth it: when it comes across will the revelation be real, filthy, beautiful, all of this and more?

OLD BOY is built from the sinew of formidable European superheroes, the like found in Kafka's dilemmas and Becket's characters but unlike (as I see it) Kim Ki Duk, this film never seems to be merely an Asian version of some European theme on life. It might be the film's technological style and production values that underline this, but because I care and notice so little about these things - take instead this clue - I just remember about the mystery that evolves in "OLD BOY", "Be it a grain of rock or salt they sink the same in the sea". Seems more like a Buddhist Koan than a European appropriation doesn't it?

It makes sense that I asked three other people to write this review and they couldn't get around to it. The raw perversity of the movie combined with a "The Truman Show" and "The Manchurian Candidate" complexity point of view basically puts the watcher in a tizzy for as long as possible; this makes sense of course as the entertainment so far is based on the bewilderment of Oh Dae Su's confinement. The film starts to move for everyone (characters in the film included) when Oh Dae Su starts to track down whoever did this to him. Vivaldi's Four Seasons is thrown into the mix of noise and music, as is the reference to "The Count of Monte Christo." Again the affect might seem like European padding but it doesn't last long as a very melodramatic fight scene of thugs trying to take Oh Dae Su out or at least slow him down is cleverly staged to show that his search for the "Wh" questions on his abduction, and with all the violations that he has been through including a steady dose of TV only entertainment for 15 years while a prisoner, that, Oh Dae Su is still a malcontent.

When Mr. Evergreen an international banker and an 'old boy' friend of Oh Dae Su comes clean the story takes a real-deep-well plot twist (that this viewer didn't see coming) and there is a complicated sense of real storytelling plus craftwork be it literary or just made for film. Anyway as far as the revelation breaks out, well - from here it's better not to tell much more; suffice to say though that the usual suspects of the police, the government, a mobster are not behind the captivity of Oh Dae Su.

After the film I sat in the local bars in Kyoung Ju listening to the soundtrack of "Pulp Fiction" and trying to get my head around the fact that the bars around here don't sell the two major beers from Seoul (Cass or OB Lager). I am wondering about this countryside, Kyoung Ju the Ancient Shilla Kingdom, with all of its artifacts out in the open and its deeper secrets buried in tombs. And then the part of the film with Mr. Evergreen's sister reading the suicide poet Sylvia Plath. Do they do these things in the countryside now? Did they ever? I mean read Sylvia Plath with all it's shock and violence in poetry as in life so raw and exposed? Of course in the world of art anything can happen, and "OLD BOY" is art. Yet, I can't forget the two years that I taught English in a boy's prison not far from here. Allot of dark happenings amidst the gossip and the threats that there is more to come. Nobody knew to call that art or those boys malcontent.

Well now here in the country at least they do have Jack Daniel's to pour. The bargirl's ring finger is just about as long as her middle one and after a few drinks I can't help but glancing at it and realizing that the story within the story of "OLD BOY" is dropped and lands like a sledgehammer leaving whatever is left of the head surrounding a great eye intact and wide wide open.

It is believed that every poem is an answer to a poem that was done before; so the obvious hodgepodge of styles, references and origins of "OLD BOY" isn't meant to fool anyone or distract from where this all ends up. The reason that this is a 'great film' and I mean 'great' in anybody's old or new school reckoning and to anyone who is riding some sort of wave in film-major lingo, is that it finally gives a two thousand plus years of Korean-Asian culture more than a superficial melodrama or over the top animation to catch the drift of. OLD BOY is an energized extremity of entertainment to be sure; it happens where the edges of art and violence and longing and vengeance fold together. I guess it can be called a revenge film, part of a Greek-drama-like-trilogy or something that the French can appreciate: whatever. It delivers a real plot and a real story for those who can take a slow walk on a country road or a quick walk on a city sidewalk and get the point.


Scott Liam Soper is the creator and editor of "DDD". He can be contacted at [email protected]


September 27, 2004