dir. Park
Opens Fri June 3
Cinema 21

I've never really been one for pain--I start hyperventilating at the sight of a needle, and I don't really get the whole S&M thing--so I'm trying to figure out why I liked Chan-wook Park's Oldboy so much. The film is a singularly, unflinchingly painful experience, containing as much emotional, psychological, and physical violence as you could possibly cram into two hours. At times brutal and at others tender, the darkly funny Oldboy is defined by both its calculated prods at audience reaction and its wholehearted embrace of earnest emotion.

Min-sik Choi stars as Dae-su Oh, who is, as the film begins, utterly unextraordinary. Dae-su has a wife and a kid, drinks too much, and vacillates between being annoyingly funny and blandly common. And then, without warning or reason, Dae-su is abducted.

That's the bad news, and it's futile to wait for the good kind--Dae-su wakes up in a tiny, windowless room that's secured with a steel door. The only human contact he has is when someone shoves a tray of food underneath the door every day, and Dae-su is given no explanation as to why he's so cruelly imprisoned. As his cries and screams go ignored, Dae-su's slow, lonely days wear ever onward. He's kept in the room for 15 years.

Slowly going batshit insane, Dae-su tries to remember everyone he might've been mean to, wonders if he's being punished for his sins, bloodies his knuckles by punching the walls, and masturbates to TV shows. The TV--his one tie with the outside world--keeps Dae-su informed on over a decade's worth of news, including the fact that his wife's been murdered, with police suspecting Dae-su's the culprit.

And then, 15 years after he was abducted, Dae-su inexplicably awakens on the roof of an apartment building, wearing a spiffy suit and breathing fresh air. Desperate to establish contact with anything else that's alive, he goes to a sushi restaurant and meets a young woman, Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang), before ravenously, desperately choking down a live octopus. Dae-su soon discovers that he has only five days to unravel the knotted mystery of his imprisonment, and what follows is an appropriately surreal, bloody, and dramatic story of revenge and mystery.

The South Korean Oldboy, which won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, is directed by Park with an astonishing sense of verve, style, and jet-black humor--from its startling opening image to its haunting final scene, it'd be easy to write off the film as being made for style alone. Park's rich, dreamlike colors, grimy locales, and brilliant use of music and edits make Oldboy look and feel like nothing else; initially, the film comes across as being nothing more than cool for cool's sake.

But to write off Oldboy as style over substance would be a huge mistake. Lurking in every frame is a powerful surge of raw emotion; Dae-su is at once furious and bewildered, full of a pitiless need for revenge and an inescapable sadness. Oldboy is about indescribable yet universal shifts in reality and identity--Dae-su is searching not only for practical answers, but for himself as well. Thanks to a pitch-perfect performance by the sometimes charming, sometimes sinister Choi, Oldboy's bloody tale ultimately hangs upon Dae-su's emotions more than Park's style.

But--and back to the pain thing here--Oldboy, as giddily entertaining as it is, proves deeply disturbing as it hurtles towards its conclusion. Park has a skill for keeping the most gruesome plot points and violence just off screen, but what he does show is jarring, shocking, even manipulative. But Oldboy is proof that great film boils down to little more than manipulation, anyway: Manipulation of images, sounds, actors, time, and the audience, with the means justifying the ends. By the time Oldboy reaches its end credits, Park and Choi have ensured that you will be emotionally and visually exhausted. (Shit, after the first 20 minutes, you'll probably be emotionally and visually exhausted.)

As Dae-su searches for revenge and answers--armed with only his shaky grasp of reality and a hammer--his journey is exhilarating, heartbreaking, and brutal, and throughout Oldboy, the audience's experience is much the same. I'm still not one for pain, but I've seen Oldboy twice now and can't wait for the third time. Oldboy is not an easy film to watch. It is, however, a great one.