The brio and glee that Korean bad-boy filmmaker Park Chanwook brings to the gaudy psycho-shockeroo Oldboy is undeniable, even impressive. It’s the perverse, hard-boiled ugliness of the story to which Park has applied his talents that alienates me. For you, results may vary.
It takes twisted visual and narrative chops to deposit the businessman antihero, Dae-su (Korean star Choi Min-sik), abruptly into solitary confinement in a mysterious prisonlike apartment that’s a marvel of cheesy wallpaper, cool club lighting, and surrealist hallucinations (including that sci-fi bad-trip classic, ants under the skin). There’s orneriness in letting Dae-su stew for 15 years. And grunge chutzpah is required to abruptly release the guy, then send him into a Japanese restaurant where he bites ravenously into a plate of writhing live octopus. (The sight is a novel gross-out that would daunt the producers of Fear Factor.) As for the plot itself — a nightmare of dislocation and shuffled memories in which Dae-su finds out who imprisoned him and why, unfolding in a Grand Guignol of violence and perversion in which teeth are extracted, a tongue is severed, and sex is incestuous — well, the filmmaker who can dream such creepfest fantasies is the man to whom Quentin Tarantino, a declared Park Chanwook admirer, can tip his Kangol cap in awe.
Oldboy caused a love-it-or-hate-it stir at Cannes last year, and how could it not: It’s an onslaught made to cause a sensation. Consider me simultaneously jolted and depressed.