Old Boy

April, 2005, Thriller

Korean movies get only miniscule distribution in the U.S., so seeing them with any regularity is well-nigh impossible. Last year, The Film Society at Lincoln Center presented a retrospective program of well-received films from South Korea and now another deeply disturbing but riveting offering has shown up at a trio of theaters here in New York. Directed by Chan-wook Park, (Joint Security Area) Old Boy continues Park's fascination with vengeance, but with infinitely more nuance than he's shown in the past. Winner of the Grand Jury Award at Cannes and voted Best Foreign Film of the Year by The British Independent Film Board, Old Boy blends a tantalizing mystery with stomach-turning violence to create a surprisingly profound meditation on forgiveness, redemption and the degree of dignity society owes to even the sorriest members of our species.

Dae-su, a Seoul businessman, gets drunk one evening, missing his young daughter's birthday. The next morning, he wakes up in what appears to be a cheap hotel room. In fact, it's an oddly furnished cell; for some reason, he's been imprisoned without trial… or explanation. He's never questioned, or accused, or mistreated, just held against his will and utterly ignored.  He spends his time watching a popular T. V. cooking show and following public events in the life of his homeland on the small television screen in this chillingly solitary confinement. He exercises furiously, pounding his towel-wrapped hands against the walls of his cell, using his imprisonment to build up a level of physical strength and endurance against the day when he'll be free to extract an appropriate payment for the horrific injustice he's been forced to endure. He suffers this stultifying existence for 15 years, losing track of his wife and daughter in the process, never once receiving even a scrap of information about the reason for his frightening punishment.  Suddenly released, he's determined to find out who has ruined his life and just as importantly, why. 

The director teases out one clue after another from the film's imaginative screenplay as Dae-su enlists the help of Mi-do, the young female chef he watched while trapped in his personal prison. They follow a series of leads that appear to have been deliberately left, which lead to a year-book from Dae-su's days in a parochial high school near Seoul and from there to the memory of a terrible wrong he caused--quite by chance--to a fellow student, one whose brother has both a long memory and a need for revenge as all-consuming as Dae-su's…

As Old Boy rushes headlong towards its Oedipal-like climax, the director manages, in scenes as explicitly violent as they are morally challenging, to excoriate the notion that revenge is ever justified. Yet unlike the orgy of blood-letting in Sin City for example, the violence in Old Boy, while often nauseating, underscores the moral issue the director raises so intently. Brutality begets brutality, even when it's employed to right a terrible wrong. In the end, there are no victors, only victims; then Park ups the ante, challenging his audience to consider whether even the basest acts, if forgiven, are capable of redemption.

With its excruciating violence and terrifying depravity, this one is not for the squeamish or casual viewer. But like last year's ominously seductive Peppermint Candy, (also from South Korea) this film employs such imaginative power and moral depth that it richly deserves the critical praise it's received.      

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