For all the claw-hammer tooth-pulling and still-writhing octopus shoved into maws, Oldboy follows the path-of-enlightenment structure of much of Korean cinema, the snow-capped denouement an update of the similarly wintry spiritual climaxes from Kim Ki-duk's Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring, and, further back, Im Kwon-Taek's Mandala. Yet the brightness is but a speck at the end of a gargantuan tunnel, and in order to get there, anti-hero Daesu (the masterfully unhinged Choi Min-sik, from Im's Chiwaseon) has to jump through so many tormented-sadistic hoops that the source for Park Chan-Wook's outrageously lurid, fever-pitch exercise seems closer to the Job tale than to ultraviolent manga. Introduced piss-drunk and making a scene at a Seoul police station, doughy, middle-aged Daesu disappears in the middle of a rain-soaked camera spiral, only to emerge locked up in a cell, brick walls painted to resemble a motel room. Why is he being held there? The TV set, his sole companion, informs him that his wife has been murdered, and he's the main suspect; for fifteen years, he has little to do but imagine ants crawling under his skin, pulp his fists against the walls, and wait for tinkling music to segue into drugged gas.
The title of Park's previous raging opus, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, certainly applies here. Freed as suddenly and inexplicably as he was imprisoned, Daesu is just as bewildered in the "bigger prison" of the outside world -- after encountering a suicidal dog-owner (culminating in a gag out of the opening of Magnolia), he stumbles, numb and clueless, into a sushi bar. ("I want to eat something alive," so the aforementioned octopus gets its chance to shine.) The chef (Kang Hye-jung), young and pretty, takes the scraggly stranger in after he collapses on the counter and quickly turns sidekick in his vengeful trek. Way too quickly -- further proof that Daesu is still playing rumpled ball of yarn to Yu Ji-tae's smooth-faced cat. Indeed, the fancy-pants villain ("kind of a scholar") holds all the cards, classical music swelling as he executes decade-spanning revenge on his baggy-eyed prey, crumbs from the past eventually leading up a trail of brutality, incest, and regret. The less revealed about the twisty plot the better, though it is enough to say that for every spent trope (hypnotism?) there's a burst of gleeful horror-anguish (a sleek apartment, a photo album, a pair of scissors) that chills the blood.
Already an item of Fight Club-Irreversible magnitude within cultist circles, Oldboy snatched Grand Prix last year at Cannes, which inevitably has lazy reviewers shrugging off its cyclonic violence as movie buffish kink from jury header Quentin Tarantino. Links between the film's own roaring rampage and the Kill Bill films (works of complex morality, even grace, routinely misread) are there, but that other reigning sultan of Asian pulp, Takashi Miike, provides a more useful comparison. Beneath its steely sheen, Park's is an ejaculating volcano of primal gut-punching, the brutality of its barnstorming different from Miike's assaults of nihilist cool. (A comparison between Miike's use of mythical imagery in Gozu and the protagonist's sense of incongrouously Buddhist awareness here separates spirituality degraded by the director from spirituality groped at desperately by degraded characters.) Every culture blends art and history differently, and it's no surprise that, for Park, a nightmarish paranoia somehow both personal and collective surges out of fried dumplings and severed tongues alike. Some kind of depraved tranquility may lie at the end, past an unbroken lateral sprawl of horrors and dark secrets that, upon revelation, annihilate and purify.
At the other extreme of the spectrum is the wry French comedy-drama Look at Me, another Cannes winner, this time for screenplay. Agnès Jaoui's wry ensemble narrative is beautifully structured, but then again the same thing could be said of Sideways -- thankfully, unlike wiseass Alexander Payne, Jaoui and collaborator Jean-Pierre Bacri (main actor, co-screenwriter, husband) are vinegary, light-fingered dissectors of human pretension and irony, less self-satisfied and more searching. As in The Taste of Others, and the earlier screenplays for Alain Resnais, the film is set in an upper-middle-class, bohemian Paris, posing and surfaces as society armors (Comme une Image is the original title). Bacri is the irritable toast of the literary world, whose monstrous ego has toadying sidekicks and admirers continually circling and his gorgeous young trophy wife (Virginie Desarnauts) eventually complaining of being less interesting to him than furniture. Basically cart-blanche to be the rich asshole, his writer's block leaves him with even less desire to deal with the film's center, his unhappy grown daughter Lolita (Marilou Berry) -- a self-described "zero," training for opera arias while glooming over her chunkiness and the way guys apparently see her exclusively as a launchpad into Dad's novelistic orbit.
No less than the mallet-to-noggin antics of Oldboy, Look at Me envisions the fragility of a society, rarefied conventions (appearances, "images") multiplying meanings as interests and emotions intrude. A singer's voice turns silken to her teacher's ears as soon as her father's identity is revealed, just as the courting of a young journalist (Keine Bouhiza) withers feeling with suspicion -- accordingly, Jaoui favors medium shots, the better to capture behavioral subtleties swapped between characters and focus on the cast's impeccable interweaving. Complementing Bacri's canny sourness, Jaoui is herself splendid as Berry's voice trainer, dealing with a glum writer-husband (Laurent Grévill) and coming to gradually notice her own role in the picture's delicately wrought design of chic betrayal; in other words, the kind of rounded female character Woody Allen nowadays has no use for. Observation shorn of smugness or knowing superiority, the movie undercuts the cultured setting with the pettiness of its dwellers -- in a running gag, cell-phone ring tones provide ongoing arias more ubiquitous than Mozart's. (Another comparison: Jaoui's use of Così fan tutte here versus Mike Nichols' cynical nudging in Closer.) Not that bizarre a double-bill, Oldboy and Look at Me are both cutting works, hammer and words able to wreck equally savage on souls.
Reviewed April 21, 2005.