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Seoul searching
Two Korean films take on secrets and guys
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Oldboy's official Web site

The search for vengeance and truth has propelled dramatic art since the birth of tragedy, so donít expect to learn anything new from these two rousing Korean thrillers. Instead, they enthrall by finding new ways of telling, or unraveling, familiar stories, by perversely frustrating, and satisfying, generic expectations. Although utterly unalike in style, tone, and ambitions, they add to Koreaís growing reputation as the hot spot of Asian cinema ó which might be another way of saying the worldís.

If nothing else, couch potatoes can take heart from Oldboy, as they did from The Matrix ó which may partly explain why critics have embraced it since it won the Grand Jury Prize last year at Cannes. Persons unknown have imprisoned Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), a noisome but otherwise nondescript Seoul drunk, for 15 years in a seedy apartment with only cable TV and hideously decorated walls for company. He channel-surfs and beats the walls until, also without explanation, heís released. Approaching his first challenge, an alley full of toughs, he muses, " Can 15 years of imaginary training be put to good use? " Moments later, noting the litter of groaning bodies before him, he concludes, " Apparently, it can. "

Amazing what a lifetime spent idle in front of a screen can accomplish. That and a growing impotent rage. (One of the news stories Dae-su sees on the TV is about the murder of his wife and daughter, which is blamed on him.) This and subsequent fight sequences unfold with a grace, brutality, and wit that have earned Oldboy the highest praise from, among others, Quentin Tarantino. But the determination and invincibility displayed in exhilaratingly shot martial-arts sequences arenít enough to overcome fate. From Sophocles to Saw, the whims of the godlike have combined superhuman abilities with subhuman morals to compose woeful fables about the human condition.

The god in this case turns out to be an " oldboy " with a grudge deeper than Dae-su could ever imagine and resources greater than any viewer could believe. Of course, Dae-suís real tormentor is the director himself, who teases and torments his hero as he regales the viewer with his sadistic caprices. (The much-touted live-cephalopod-eating incident pales, in my opinion, before some of the magic Dae-su performs with a claw hammer.) Against such forces, the hero can defy destiny by crusading for revenge, by seeking the truth, or by resigning him- or herself to ignorance and indifference. Park exquisitely demonstrates how each option is not only futile but self-destructive. It hardly matters in the end that to do this he must distract us from (or emphasize) the absurdities and implausibilities of his story with often hilarious stylistic tricks and hoary plot devices (hypnosis, tranquilizers, a beautiful female sushi chef). What matters is the skill and determination and outré spectacle with which the hero rushes to his own awareness and destruction.

One curious (to Western viewers) element in Oldboy might be the montage of top TV news stories Dae-su watches in his cell from 1988 to 2003. For most American audiences, the only familiar events will be those of September 11. The rest is history from a Korean point of view, and itís a reminder that these films take place in a world not yet subsumed by mass American culture.

Had Dae-su been incarcerated in 1986, the montage might have included reference to the first serial-killer case in South Korea, the inspiration of Bong Joon-hoís conventional but cumulatively powerful Memories of Murder. Young women are found defiled and dead in a backwater town whose chief detective, Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho), doesnít concern himself with such niceties as evidence and forensics when kicking a confession out of a retarded suspect still works. As such, he emulates the brutes of the reigning military dictatorship. Or the crew in Touch of Evil, except this guy can never get the perp right, despite his belief that he can discern guilt by staring it in the eyes. Enter a big-city Seoul detective (Kim Sang-kyung) and a conflict in method arises ó one so distracting, they commit an obvious oversight that will drive even a half-awake viewer crazy. But that isnít the point of Memories. As horrible as it can be to learn the truth, as in Oldboy, Memories suggests it might be worse never to be sure.

Issue Date: April 15 - 21, 2005
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