K-Pop lies. Where is the bubble-gum sweet, diamante riddled Korea SBS promised?
Park Chan-wook’s feature Old Boy (2003) gently nudges at your brain, gets you emotionally invested, then takes that investment, rips it out through your belly and stuffs them back down your throat, making you want to hurl. This is a film that sews you into your seat and then holds your eyes open à la Burgess, as if to tell the viewer — see? See what happens when you trust your perception?
Old Boy is a gritty romp that follows Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik), who is imprisoned in a hotel room for 15 years. His captor and purpose are unknown, until Dae-Su is finally released. The film charts his journey to vengeance.
In many ways, on paper Old Boy follows the tracks of old romp ’n’ stomp vengeance plotlines. That being said, Chan-wook manipulates the storytelling, boxing in the viewer, and making it into a tool for humiliation, disgust and re-visitations. The limited window he provides us on events (through the camera), crucially, limits our knowledge of events (what he lets us see), and forces us into a role so partisan, and generic, we remain blind to the coming events. He carefully exploits the South-Korean sensibilities of family, recall and obligation to exploit the emotional vulnerability of characters (and, by proxy us).
As the story unfurls, the grit and gore of the story, (reminiscent of Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer  — it has a similar end-of-times ‘timbre’ to it’s imagery, a film on which Chan-wook was a co-producer) force us to take shelter in the small, genuine relationships of the plot. We find hope in the new life that Dae-Su will be able to forge once his vengeance has been enacted, and in the romance between he and the bright sushi chef, Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung). But we have been backed onto the emotional ropes unconsciously, and by Chan-wook’s pedantic design. Idiosyncrasies of character get us invested, even in the antagonist, a pacemaker that is a ticking time-bomb — dialogue and motivation are real — and they give us enough loft above the grit of the plot to carry us along on the journey. So when Chan-wook’s writing cracks the whip and, as is the aspect ratio widens, we then see the larger net of writing used to enrapture us.
(This film is worth watching without knowing too much. Forgive a reviewer for skating around the more significant turns of plot. Just watch the film.)
It is impressive to see the raw and gaudy violence of Dae-Su’s revenge interwoven with a voyeur’s torture that borders on the physical — we, as viewers, are condemned by the film’s events. We have unwittingly condoned them by watching. As an exemplary filmic form of good ol’ emotional manipulation, Old Boy refreshes our faith in film to rain blows of affect upon not only our emotion, but our bodies too. It is truly a deep-end foray into South Korean Cinema, if you are similarly uniformed as myself. Go for it.
SMALL OR BIG SCREEN: Big screen, if possible. Fellow audience member reacts are crucial.
INCLUSIVITY: Mi-do remains the only main female character in the story, and is readily shunted aside in the climactic moments of the film. This remains is a male-centric, status-riven, Asia-centric story. Not many points for inclusivity, yet it’s a tightly wound, close-knit story about family, so racial homogeneity is to be expected.
WATCH WITH: …Not your family.