Wednesday, August 31, 2005

A Bouquet of Hammers

There's little in the world of cinema as rare or as exciting as a truly original thriller. Oh, Hollywood still puts out plenty of thrillers, thrill conveniently, perplexingly, perhaps conveniently removed. Part of the problem is that we--and by we, I mean I--have seen far too many thrillers. We've learned the arcs, we recognized the archetypes; and as such, we're no longer absorbed, surprised . . . thrilled. Some independent fare, as well as similar-seeming imported product from Japan and Korea, manages to shock with incoherent plotting, graphic violence, unsympathetic characters, torture, masochism and/or other deviances, from the petty to the truly perverse. This approach can have its merits. Shock is, after all, a powerful emotion; and handled well--think Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, Takashi Miike's Audition--shock can actually transcend itself, morphing into a sense of genuine dread or existential ennui. But without a context, social or aesthetic, to ground the shock in the moorings of our innate fears or current zeitgeist, it becomes another trick to overuse, like the glut of CGI in the average Hollywood blockbuster. Besides, all young directors who think they can create a shock-opera crime thriller that will have a real impact on the market should see Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer. Whatever they think they can shock us with has been done. Ichi is the last word in Asian shock cinema the way Dead Alive is the last word in zombie flicks.

Every so often, though, someone manages to re-define the boundaries of the template, and come up with a piece that challenges the intellect, rouses the emotions, dazzles the senses. Sometimes a young turk in the industry can surprise you the way audiences must have been surprised when they first saw John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate back in the '60s. A Christopher Nolan, perhaps, with Memento (you haven't seen it yet? GET THEE TO A VIDEO STORE, CRETIN!!). Takashi Miike with Audition, which unsettles you with its eerie quiet before knocking you between the eyes with its nauseating torture sequence. Dirty Pretty Things, a return to form of sorts for Stephen Frears (plus it has Audrey Tatou, which never hurt any movie).

Add to that list: Oldboy, a troubling, shocking, sexy, funny, brutal, surreal and bizarrely redemptive fever dream from South Korea, directed and co-written by Chan-wook Park.

Min-sik Choi, in one of the best performances I've watched all year, is Dae-su Oh, a fairly ordinary man who, like many ordinary men, drinks too much. We meet him in a stupor, where general drunken goofiness and gently amusing references to his young daughter--he puts on a pair of white, feathery angel wings ostensibly meant to be a costume for a performance and frolics for the camera--progress to violent and tantrumic outbursts. He's carried out by a friend . . . and next seen in a cramped, seedy "motel" room with a prison-style door. He spends his time with no human contact but a television (no cable, even), fed only fried dumplings and periodically put to sleep with gas so his (unseen, unknown) captors can clean him, cut his hair & nails and change his clothes.

Fifteen years later, Dae-su is released to a grassy rooftop with a new suit. He soon after acquires a cell phone, on which he receives calls from his captor and is given clues to find out who imprisoned him and why. After enlisting the aid of a sympathetic waitress (thank God for those), Mi-do, he gradually sniffs and fights his way to the answers.

It's both fortunate and unfortunate that I can't say much more about the plot. Truth be told, the story, as complex and intelligently wrought as it is, is less a matter of plot than of puzzle. For all it's violence--and there's plenty--Oldboy is a meditation. Like Kill Bill Volume II, vengeance is no mere pretense for lots of violence (as it seemed to be in Kill Bill Volume I--and I'll have you know I was perfectly fine with that): It's a human impulse that is explored, studied and well-chewed-on. In a rare turn for a revenge pic, forgiveness is actually mentioned. More than mentioned, it is sought, discarded and revisited. Memory, too, gets a thorough exploration, on a continuum that calls to mind Memento's questioning of the human mind, and whether its contents and recollections are to be trusted.

It's only fair to warn that this movie isn't for the weak of stomach. While not as bloody as Kill Bill or flagrantly amoral as Ichi the Killer, Chan-wook Park is more than willing to push an envelope or two: A man devours a live octopus for the camera; a claw hammer is used as a dental instrument before becoming a formidable weapon in a long and brutal fight; various acts of torture and self-immolation accompany our "hero's" quest. As purplestine said after the film, "I loved it, except for the parts I couldn't watch."

A word or two on the fighting in the film: While not as balletic as anything in a Jet Li movie, as mind-bendingly precise as Jackie Chan's choreography or as focused and vicious as any of the moves immortalized by Bruce Lee, the efficient, brutal choreography--basic street-level pugilism (without the rules), leavened with a subtle dash of Muay Thai's circularity and force--seems more real than anything I've ever seen onscreen. When Dae-su takes on a veritable battalion of thugs in a long, dark corridor, armed with the aforementioned claw hammer, what should be an implausible maiming spree makes perfect, naturalistic sense, so skillfully does the choreography and direction convey the sense of a man so driven by his fury that he can't be put out of commission.

I won't give anything away about the end . . . except to say that those critics and viewers who found it hollow, nihilistic or self-defeating weren't paying attention. Indeed, the resolution of the story grows naturally from its thematic wistfulness, the anxious, inconstant faith that even in the midst of chaos, vengeance, violence and deception, love and redemption are possible . . . and necessary.

A side note on Korean cinema: I've had a reasonable bit of experience with Chinese and Japanese cinema. While I've always enjoyed both, they actually share a magnified version of a flaw endemic to American cinema: Lots of violence in a very, very sexless atmosphere. Korean cinema, or what little I've seen of it, has no such reservations. Both films by Ki-Duk Kim that I've seen--The Isle, which is quite good, and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring, which is outstanding (more on those in a future post, I'm sure)--were extremely sexual; and Oldboy is also not fearful with regards to sex. Granted, sex is dangerous in all of these movies; but even a pro-sex sort like me has to admit that, good, bad, comforting or nihilistic, all of my sexual experiences were at least a little dangerous.


Blogger TD said...

Found you by way of Missuz J. I enjoy your recommendations (def going to check out Oldboy), and I enjoy your writing even more.

12:11 PM  
Blogger thelyamhound said...

Thank you! I actually visited one of your blogs just now--the one that postulated a connection between desiring to work out and seeing Jessica Simpson wash some redneck-mobile or other--and responded. Glad to have caught your attention! I suppose, as guilty pleasures go, I'm better than cigarettes . . .

12:41 PM  
Blogger TD said...

Ha! I just read your comment on my blog (which happens to be the one I haven't updated in two months), and as a point of clarification, Jessica Simpson is definitely not my aesthetic ideal (think more Maggie Gyllenhaal); I'm just amazed by -- and a little envious of -- her ability to frolic about in the bare minimum of fabric and not have a single body part shake, jiggle, OR ripple. Excepting her boobs, of course.

I'm off to check out the world of Stine...

1:26 PM  
Blogger thelyamhound said...

I love both the Gyllenhaals, Maggie and Jake (you've seen "Donnie Darko", I assume? where they actually play siblings?). "Secretary" is a masterpiece. I've wanted to spank Maggie Gyllenhaal to no end since seeing it.

I saw the "five songs" list on the other one--responded to that, too, just to approve of some of your choices.

1:37 PM  
Blogger amandak said...

Thanks for the suggestion on MIA, I think I saw her over the summer on WMF (World Music Feed) when we had ALL the channels on dish network in order to catch the Tour. I still need to find a decent music store here in Albuquerque, even Vic didn't have a reccomendation, but I'm sure there must be something.

2:30 PM  

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