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'Old Boy' cleaves close to Greek tragedy

2004/06/09 Source

[Film review] Korean-style revenge flicks are garnering major awards, ticket sales

Kim Soung Su (onomatos)

A man named Oh Dae Su is kidnapped and locked up in a private prison by an unknown organization. While captive, he sees on television that he is being charged with the murder of his wife. Of course, he did not kill his wife since he is already imprisoned. Fifteen years later, Oh is suddenly freed and begins a quest to find out why he was locked up for so long.

This is the beginning of a recent Korean film titled "Old Boy" (2003). Last month, it won the Jury Grand Prix, which is given to the second best picture at the 54th annual Cannes International Film Festival 2004. At the 41st Daejong Korean Film Festival, the film won a total of five grand prizes -- best director (Park Chan Wook), best actor in a leading role (Choi Min Sik), editing, music and lighting.

"Old Boy" is successful not only as an art film but also as a commercial film. Albeit the story was originally from a Japanese cartoon, the script has been changed so much that it is more like a different story. The genre can be called a mixture of cult, drama, action and thriller. Moreover, in the tradition of Tarantino, "Old Boy" is a mixture of European, Hollywood, Hong Kong and Korean films.

Park Chan Wook is a film director who can clearly show the public that he can deal with the issues of "cause" (or "why") and "relationships". In another film, "Joint Security Area" (2000), he focused upon a few fictional incidents between soldiers on both sides of Panmunjeom (the truce village located in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea), and asked why Korea has remained divided.

In "Old Boy" he tries to deal with the issues of "cause" and "relationships" in the context of revenge. In fact, this is not his first film on the topic of revenge. The first one was "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" (2001). "Old Boy" is not a sequel but the second film of his trilogy of revenge tragedy and cleaves much closer in structure and spirit of Greek tragedy than to ordinary revenge films.

Revenge films are implicitly film-noir and "Old Boy" is no exception. As such, it has many clichés such as extreme violence, vulgar language, voice-overs and flashbacks. But the crucial point is that the film tells a human story very philosophically and aesthetically. Park seriously questions what humanity and human life is. In particular, the film asks, "Even though I am no better than a beast, I do have the right to live, don't I?"

It is not so difficult to follow the narrative of "Old Boy", but understanding the film's allegories is another matter. It has its own unique interpretation on human revenge and pathos. Furthermore, the film's final reversal is very clever and makes room for the audience to think about the entire story in greater depth. In last sequence, the film reveals the essence of human life, language, love, morality and consciousness.

The dictum, "Laugh, and the world laughs with you. Weep, and you will weep alone", is the key to enjoying "Old Boy".

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