Sunday, July 19, 2009

{Subsersive Cinema} Oldboy

Cult film, exploitation, horror, all have a special place in my heart. One of the reasons for this is they are the most likely to be truly subversive. I enjoy subversive cinema. I tend to enjoy anything that asks the questions or makes the observations that make us uncomfortable. I don't necessarily mean I just like them because they make us uncomfortable, but it's the way they tend to make us uncomfortable. There are some which have no more purpose than to shock or disgust, and though some of those can still be fun, they don't really reach that level of being truly subversive. When something about a film makes us uncomfortable in that way that suggests it's presenting or saying something about us or society which we're not really very willing to talk about any other way, it makes me all warm and fuzzy inside, even when it involves blood on the screen. This is why I've decided to start a series of short essays on Subversive Cinema. I've decided to start with Oldboy for a simple reason. Quality. It's just an extremely well made film, and despite it's strange, dark nature is full of passion and life. No one could have made this film, as well as it is made without absolutely loving this particular film, film in general and specifically a more subversive subject matter.

In the last decade or so, we here in the U.S. have started paying a good deal more attention to the Asian film industry. The result has been a number of great films getting to our shores. Good for us, and I hope our brethren in Japan, S. Korea and otherwise, continue to do their good work. But, because of the flood of films coming out of Asia, some of them are slipping through the cracks, and since like anywhere else, they aren't all great films, some people have been burned once too many times and have lost trust in the Asian industry to deliver good films. Even as I know all of this is true, I'm always shocked by the number of people I know who have a general love for film, and a special love for cult film, who haven't seen Oldboy.

Oldboy is a South Korean film by wunderkind Chan Wook Park. It's the second film in his vengeance trilogy. It's not a trilogy in the sense that all three films follow the exploits, adventures and journey of a central cast of characters. The stories and characters in each film are unique to it. They are all centered around stories concerning revenge, it's results and the toll it takes on the characters central to it.

But to scuttle Oldboy into the sub-genre of revenge film, is to sell it far short. It's far more complex and far less cliche'd than what we traditionally understand to be a revenge film. It is one of those rare films which is successful in both characterization and plot. When you think you know where Oldboy is going next with it's story, the chances are better that you're wrong. It's not what you're used to, and what you've seen a thousand times before, so it's not going anywhere that you're used to going. It's a tight screenplay, with little lapse in the action moving the story forward and keeping you engaged and guessing. Every part of the screenplay is about moving the story forward. At the same time, there's enough in the film to actually make the characters sympathetic and interesting. You do give a damn about what's happening to them and around them in the film, which helps to keep the story from ever seeming to be slow and boring. It makes the central character, whose actions can be absolutely horrid, a sympathetic character we want to see succeed and go away into the sunset, happily ever after.

Technically, it's as good as they come. There is a specific scene in the center of the film which is stunning in the kind of technical achievement it is. If you haven't seen this film, I don't want to ruin it for you, but I will say that it's a fight scene, shot in a way you never see action scenes filmed. It's exhilarating, exhausting, brutal and beautiful at the same time. Beyond this single scene, the cinematography is great and the whole film has it's own strange beauty. It's not just another film stealing it's look from nineties music videos or trying to emulate Seven (like the recent horror film The Collector, wait for video on that one). Chan Wook Park produced a film more simply beautiful and with it's own personality, for a budget far, far less than your average lower budget Hollywood film, 4 million dollars. Is 4 million, a lot of money? Yes. But considering that the lower end of the Hollywood budget is 30 million these days, it's pretty low, and most of those Hollywood films don't reach near the level of quality this tasty morsel of Korean craziness has.

Oldboy is based on a Japanese manga of the same name, and though I'm not familiar with it, the film apparently follows the manga more directly in spirit than in detail. The film takes it's cues from a number of different cinematic disciplines, surrealism, noir, conventional thriller, love story, and probably a few more if you really dissect it further. The story of the film centers on Oh Dae Su, whom we see in the beginning of the film as a completely unremarkable loud mouthed guy, drunk and acting both stupidly and pathetically. In the first few minutes of the film, we're presented with Dae Su being drunk, ending up in a police station (basically for public drunkenness), yammering on in the absolutely unremarkable way people do when they're that drunk. He's picked up from the station by someone who is obviously his friend, and they stop at a phone booth so his friend can phone Dae Su's wife to let her know he's alive and well and will be home soon. In the midst of this phone call, Dae Su completely disappears. From there, things really take off. To give you just a small idea of where it's going, Dae Su wakes up in a small furnished room, locked in, captive and proceeds to spend a very long time there. It's a great sequence, and sets up both the voice of the film and the story perfectly, along with being surreal, bizarre, mind bending and very funny at times.

Like most of the films which I'll be writing about in this little series on subversive cinema, Oldboy is not for everyone. It's a hard film in a lot of ways. It's brutal, violent, graphic and just hard. But, it also has a really warm heart. You really feel for Oh Dae Su as he takes this journey. He's not a mindless revenge machine, but at the same time, all of the things which make him more than a mindless revenge machine, push him further through the story and into the events that unfold. The combination of that brutality and the degree to which it is still very warm is a big part of what makes this film as good as it is, and as different as it is. It's not weepy and sentimental, don't get me wrong, but it really does love ALL of it's characters, which makes every single piece of the story that much more important and gut wrenching. Chan Wook Park really did something incredibly great and incredibly different with this awesome little movie. If you do see this film and enjoy it, give the other two films in the trilogy a shot. They aren't quite at the level of quality as this film, but they are very good, and worth the time.

What I haven't discussed so far is the reason Oldboy has made it under a series of reviews/essays about subversive cinema. It's hard to get at that without ruining it for those of you who haven't seen the film, but I'm going to give it a shot.

All three of the films in Park's vengeance trilogy are subversive, at least, in the fact that they all take a perspective that compared to most of the other revenge films we see, is very different. Oldboy is more or less saying, revenge will end you, whether it is rationally justifiable or not, revenge will end you. American cinema has a long history of revenge film, rarely though, do we so strongly and so deftly make a statement against it. We're usually a little more black and white in our perspective. Bad guy did something bad, good guy (who maybe put himself in a bad position, at worst) must seek deserved and justified vengeance. Good guy gets deserved vengeance, walks off into sunset with girl, everyone happy. Not so much with Oldboy. Everyone involved in the story is dealt some deeply unpleasant results from their desire for revenge or their participation in someone else' vengeance. No one comes out of it clean. It also plays with the the ideas of deserved or justified as well, essentially asking who it is that gets to decide what is justified. It highlights, in it's own strange, sick and twisted way, the degree to which someone consumed with something like revenge is so deeply, horrifically self involved. This film goes to places with that idea which are so deeply unsettling, surprising and so far off the radar, in first viewing it's almost hard to believe the film makers actually went there. I can vividly remember sitting there, watching the film for the first time and thinking, "No. I must have missed something. That can't be right. They can not have gone there." And yes, they did.

The other deeply subversive piece of Oldboy's pie is the degree of heart it really has. This is not a film dedicated to being cool for the sake of being cool or reveling solely in being a revenge fantasy. It's subversive because even though it's central themes all have to do with revenge, there really is a heart at the center of it which is speaking to the best in all of us in it's very strange way. These characters are all doing some rather horrific things, but for reasons that though we may not find justified or rational, are completely understandable and we are sympathetic to them. It's not about how hard ass and tough they are or how cool they can look or sound while being so. It's about how there is something good in these people who are so broken they either can't see where there actions are taking them, don't care or are perfectly willing to do that distance to quiet that brokenness. It's tragic, sad, beautiful, disgusting and still strangely supportive of those good faith ideas like sacrifice for others. It's rare that films are able to walk the kind of line Oldboy does so adeptly.

There's a reason Quentin Tarantino, when serving as President of the Jury heavily lobbied his fellow jurors to award Olboy the Palm d'Or (the highest prize of the festival). It came away with the Grand Prix instead, basically second prize.

On one last note, there are whispers on the intrawebs these days that Steven Spielberg and Will Smith are trying to buy the rights to original manga to adapt them into an American film. The word is that they are going to attempt to make a film much more faithful to the original material. I may be in the minority among many of my friends, but I like both Steven Spielberg and Will Smith. I really don't want to see them make this film though. As films like Oldboy, the French horror film Martyrs, the Swedish vampire film Let The Right One In, and a number of others reach U.S. audiences, the number of people who are willing to start taking a new perspective on international film grows. These films deserve that opportunity, and so do those people who are willing to give them a chance and check them out. A great example of what this means is (Rec.), a Spanish film released a few years ago. Here in the U.S., the horror community latched onto it and raved about it, as did the critical community. But, we didn't get much of a chance to see the original film. Two years later, Quarantine, the film which was basically a shot for shot remake of (Rec.) with an American (English speaking) cast, was given a wide release and did pretty good business. It's not as good as the original. It's not a bad film, but it's just not as good. The movie going public got the short end of the stick. There are also whispers of Americanized remakes of both Martyrs and Let The Right One In. Will Smith and Steven Spielberg doing a version of Oldboy will more or less ensure Chan Wook Parks awesome film will be pushed into permanent obscurity, both the film and film fans deserve better. Tartan Asia, which released Oldboy on DVD in the U.S. under their Asian Extreme banner, has gone out of business, and their catalog sold. They had distributed a number of the Japanese horror films which were remade here in the last ten or so years, and as a result, few people have bothered seeing the originals. Now a great company like Tartan is no more, even though they've done a great job of bringing quality films to the States. This kind of thing will continue to happen if movie goers aren't even given a fighting chance at seeing the original films, in their original forms.