For sewage in a cocktail shaker, there is Oldboy, a noxious helping of Korean Grand Guignol as pointless as it is shocking. What else can you expect from a nation weaned on kimchi, a mixture of raw garlic and cabbage buried underground until it rots, dug up from the grave and then served in earthenware pots sold at the Seoul airport as souvenirs?
Directed by Chan-wook Park, a film-festival “comer” in this nation of emerging cinematic schlock, a cheerful drunk named Dae-su Oh disappears from the phone book and is sealed in a room for 15 years. Injected with drugs and forced to sleep every night with Valium gas that hisses through vents in the walls, he has no idea where he is, who put him there, or what he did to deserve such a fate in the first place. He keeps track of the time he’s imprisoned in this hole by etching a tattoo on his body for every year. Suddenly, he’s released in a field from the inside of a steamer trunk, more confused than ever. What follows is an extended two-hour nightmare in which he tries to track down his captors by tracing the takeout food they fed him in his cell, while the voices of his torturers contact him on cell phones and computer chat-room Web sites.
What is going on here? Nobody knows. Meanwhile, he defeats an entire gang of killers with a knife sticking out of his back. He eats a live eel. A severed hand rips out a man’s teeth, one by one, with a hammer. Blood flows, there is much vomiting and incest, and more screams than Japanese kabuki. Part kung fu, part revenge-theme Charlie Chan murder mystery, part metaphysical Oriental mumbo-jumbo, all of it incomprehensible. Dae-su Oh is played by Min-sik Choi. I walked out at the point where he grabbed a pair of sharp scissors and cut his tongue off in blood-splattering close-ups. Obviously the actor is still in one piece, but I’d be willing to bet there’s some poor cow somewhere in Pusan who can no longer moo. Oldboy makes strange music, but it’s like a three-hour concerto played on a theremin.
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