Old Boy (18)

Violent? Just be pleased you're not an octopus...
Click to follow

In the South Korean thriller Old Boy, the vengeful hero, wild-eyed and hair bristling like a rabid porcupine, muses to himself, "I've now become a monster." Monster? He's positively extra-terrestrial, and so is Old Boy itself. Once in a while a film comes along that so perplexes you - so leaves you feeling that you've wandered into unfamiliar and perhaps unsafe territory - that you might as well be watching cinema from another planet. Park Chan-Wook's film is very much like that, although to some extent Old Boy is perfectly categorisable: it's a hyper-violent revenge thriller (and one that mightily tickled Quentin Tarantino's fancy in Cannes this year, where it won the Grand Prize). Yet that doesn't begin to tell you what you're dealing with. The sheer strangeness of Old Boy - of its plot, its structure, its imagery, its look - seems well nigh inexhaustible.

In the South Korean thriller Old Boy, the vengeful hero, wild-eyed and hair bristling like a rabid porcupine, muses to himself, "I've now become a monster." Monster? He's positively extra-terrestrial, and so is Old Boy itself. Once in a while a film comes along that so perplexes you - so leaves you feeling that you've wandered into unfamiliar and perhaps unsafe territory - that you might as well be watching cinema from another planet. Park Chan-Wook's film is very much like that, although to some extent Old Boy is perfectly categorisable: it's a hyper-violent revenge thriller (and one that mightily tickled Quentin Tarantino's fancy in Cannes this year, where it won the Grand Prize). Yet that doesn't begin to tell you what you're dealing with. The sheer strangeness of Old Boy - of its plot, its structure, its imagery, its look - seems well nigh inexhaustible.

Park Chan-Wook's last film was the equally black Sympathy For Mr Vengeance: somehow it's no surprise to learn that this director views revenge as "the most dramatic subject in the world". But that film, merciless as it was, had a luminous visual grace and a certain ironic calm, even as it traced the infernal logic of a plot involving organ trafficking and child kidnap. Its grimness was almost tolerable because it was shot largely in daylight. Old Boy, however, is a film of stygian darkness - a rank darkness you can almost smell - and you can't help feeling that we're seeing the true shade of its director's mind. No doubt Park is a perfect sweetie in real life, and kind to puppies, but the authorial imagination he projects on screen is as remorselessly twisted as any we've seen in cinema.

The film's shaggy-headed hero Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-Sik) is first seen as a drunken, middle-aged man making an obnoxious nuisance of himself in a police cell. No sooner is he bailed out than Dae-Su vanishes into a rainy night, only to reappear peering out of a cell door, alternately pleading with and trying to bite the ankles of his mysterious captors.

He spends 15 years in the cell - decorated to resemble an extremely cheap and gloomy 1970s hotel room - before being suddenly released, pitched out into the world in a designer suit and an electrocution victim's hairdo. A taunting voice on the end of a phone line gives Dae-Su five days to find out why he's been victimised, and so he sets out to investigate with the help of Mido (Gang Hye-Jung), a young woman who works in the restaurant where he drops in for a reinvigorating snack of live octopus.

This summary barely grazes the surface of Old Boy's craziness and extremity: it's hard to know where in its overall logic to place such apparent non-sequiturs as the hallucinations of ants experienced by both Dae-Su and Mido (he sees them teeming out of his hand, she spots a giant one commuting on the subway). As for the violence, it simply takes no prisoners: Dae-Su's vengefulness pioneers new limits in the cinema of DIY dentistry, while the climax of humiliation and blood-letting is little short of Jacobean. The violence is never remotely treated as a joke: Park really wants to brutalise his characters, and his viewers too. Much of the bloodletting could be described as gratuitous, in the sense that Park seems to be indulging himself because he can.

Yet this is not the same as the brutality being spurious: you sense that Park's is a genuinely sadistic imagination, which is why he makes his characters so spectacularly masochistic. You feel, finally, that you're being presented with an authentic vision of earthly hell, through the eyes of a truly demonic storyteller. That explains why the film's visual style is so acutely, wilfully ugly: the bizarre artifice of the sets makes it seem that we're not looking at any recognisable reality, so much as gazing into scale models of the interior of someone's troubled mind. Dae-Su's cell, for example, has an ostentatiously grubby, rancid look that suggests one of Mike Nelson's claustrophobic installation-art environments.

Almost automatically, you reach for comparisons with David Lynch, but they're only superficial. Where Lynch's films finally defy logical explanation, nearly everything in Old Boy proves to make perfect sense: Dae-Su is indeed punished for a precise reason, and the working-out of the final revelations is fiendish in its rigorous intricacy. Yet the clarity of the narrative logic strikes an unsettling discord with the nightmarish incontinence of the passions released in the story.

You might try to squeeze Old Boy into a more comprehensible framework by reading it allegorically - as evoking South Korea's emergence from its own repressive history into a present in which past traumas become even darker neuroses. You might be better off not bothering: even such a dry interpretation wouldn't begin to reduce the film's defiant strangeness. But for fear of overstressing that strangeness, I should emphasise Park's virtuoso brilliance. The strangely detached scene in which Dae-Su takes on an army of hoods is nothing short of inspired, the camera tracking to and fro along a corridor so that the combat resembles something between a computer game sequence and a classical frieze.

You either go with Old Boy or you don't. Its madcap provocation, and the sheer density of its invention, give it the feel of a highly controlled delirium: this is a mad film, and not in the soft-boiled benign sense in which we usually use that term.

However, one element of its madness sticks in the craw, and I say that advisedly: I refer to the scene in which lead actor Choi is required to chomp on a live octopus, its tentacles slithering all over his face. Apparently five or six hapless shelled molluscs sacrificed their lives for this moment: never mind Mr Vengeance, what about sympathy for Squiddly Diddly?

j.romney@independent.co.uk

Comments