Monday, September 17, 2012

Hammer I Miss You: Oldboy (2003)

Liam José is one part of CRIME FACTORY PUBLICATIONS, which publishes noir, crime and hardboiled magazine and literature. He also writes for CRIMINAL COMPLEX. His fiction has been published in numerous anthologies, and can next be found in The Tobacco-Stained Sky and Superhero.

We asked Liam to write about how he discovered Korean cinema, and what he loves about it. Here is what he said...

I was asked to write about how I came to love Korean cinema for the KOFFIA blog, and, like so many other people in Western countries, I’d have to trace my love to Oldboy (2003), Park Chan-Wook’s masterful thriller – which is playing at this year’s KOFFIA as part of the ‘Modern Classics’ line-up.

It opened in Australia in the old timey days of 2005, so cast your mind back – back to when Live 8 successfully eliminated poverty and all the world’s woes; when smartphones had yet to launch, and the secret tower that beams thought control laser at us all had yet to be switched on. Yes, it truly was a different age. And so was I, due to the magic of “time”.

From the opening shot of Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-Sik) dangling Oh Kwang-rok’s character over the edge of a building by his necktie, I knew I was hooked. The movie had a fearless blend of operatic staging, blood-curdling violence and the darkest black humour. Based on a comic book, OldBoy is the tale of Oh Dae-Su, who is kidnapped and imprisoned for 15 years, only to be released and told he has five days to discover the reason he was taken. It is the antetype of the modern resurgence in revenge thrillers, and a good gateway drug into Korean cinema in general.

I can’t really overstate the effect OldBoy had on my impressionable mind – it instantly vaulted into my “favourite films” list – and changed what I expected from my thrillers and action films. It was just plain better than what I was used to. No longer would I put up with films that pulled their punches, no more would I tolerate any type of sentimentality. OldBoy was truly superlative. Choi Min-Sik gave the first classic performance of the century in the film – a fearless and unhinged portrayal of a man struggling in a world he’s been absent from for so long – Choi manages to balance anger, vulnerability, sweetness and menace so well, and so uniquely, truly anchoring the film.

The main thing I took away from watching the film, however, was that I just had to track down everything director Park Chan-Wook had made. My next step was Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, the first part of the “Vengeance Trilogy” (of which OldBoy was part two). This film cemented that OldBoy wasn’t just a fluke – Park Chan-Wook was unbelievably talented. While OldBoy held its thrills, gore and humour together with a pounding action movie-esque plot, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance was, somehow, nastier, yet also funnier. It drew to mind a much less formalist version of Charles Laughton’s Night Of The Hunter, by contrasting the disturbing elements with beauty and arch humour.

Shin Ha-kyun in 'Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance'

I suppose the thing that connects me with these films is the thumbing of the nose toward sentiment, the refusal to hold the hand of the audience. I felt like these films respected the audience, and had a stronger emotional realism than their Hollywood counterparts. The films seemed to have an almost fatalistic, nihilistic approach to violence and the decisions of their characters that really struck a chord with me. I love the sense that everyone in these films are tainted – our heroes and villains exist in this wondrous grey area, torn asunder by their choices, and try to navigate through a world where all systems and institutions are corrupt. In a word – Korean crime cinema really understands ‘noir’ better than any film movement since American ‘70s crime cinema.

From these films, I continued to devour all the Korean thrillers I could get my hands on – Park’s short film Cut and the final part of the ‘Vengeance TrilogySympathy For Lady Vengeance (2005), and his whimsical, delirious follow-up I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006). Then, I found Bong Joon-ho, and his enthralling monster film, The Host (2006), his mesmerising procedural thriller (if such a term can be applied to such an inventive and constantly surprising film) Memories Of Murder (2003) and the heart-breaking, funny and disturbing Mother (2008). From there it was director Kim Ji-Woon's bonkers The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008) and his revenge drama - the operatic, hugely compelling, horrifically violent, and overall – immensely entertaining – I Saw The Devil (2010).

From Bong Joon-ho's masterpiece 'Memories of Murder'

Much has been written about the violence of Korean cinema, and the sociopolitical theories behind this, and I don’t really find it’s my place to go into that, as it would just be me repeating bits and pieces from those more educated on the subject. It is, though, striking to note that The Man From Nowhere (2010) was the highest grossing film in Korea the year of its release. While it is no doubt a wonderful film, it is also quite confronting and very violent, with murky morality and huge swaths of corruption at its core. This is part of what I love about modern Korean cinema – while Australian audiences are constantly inundated by dreck like Twilight and whatever personality-free blockbuster has paid its way into the multiplexes, the fare coming from Korea has been a wonderful and refreshing antidote. Just like the last few years, I can’t wait to see what new gems KOFFIA will introduce me to.

Oldboy is screening in Brisbane on Friday, September 28th at 8:45pm in its full 35mm film print glory. Edgy. Tickets available now through Tribal Theatre here.

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