Thursday, 10 May 2012


Oldboy (2003)

For almost a decade South Korea has produced a steady stream of  revenge thrillers that are stomach churning, but compulsively watchable.  They’re unflinchingly violent, morally ambiguous and border on the exploitative.  But more often than not, the results are Shakespearean in magnitude.

Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy is the sub-genre’s finest example.  It’s one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite films, and has critical cache to spare.  It won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2004, and is being remade by Spike Lee, a director who excels at courting controversy.  Oldboy is just the tip of the icepick.

It’s actually the middle chapter in Park’s vengeance themed trilogy, bookended by Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance.  Each time out Park has refined his mastery of the medium, and devised new ways to make audiences squirm.  

Jee-woon Kim is Park’s heir apparent.  Although he’s never made the same kind of movie twice (Horror, Gangster, Western), his I Saw The Devil could have easily been a derivative exercise, and the nail in the genre’s coffin.  But with Oldboy’s sympathetic hero (veteran actor Min-sik Choi) cast as the villain, what ensues is a diabolical game of cat-and-mouse that’s almost as funny as it is gruesome.

The Chaser may be the movement’s most depraved entry.  Much of what occurs feels like shallow one-upsmanship.  But there’s a breathless mid-movie foot-chase that’s virtuoso, and an ending that left me slack-jawed and inconsolable. 

The Man From Nowhere is the latest notable entry, glossy and stylish, and surprisingly tender.  It features a kidnapped little girl, a former spy and a climactic knife fight that rivals Viggo Mortensen’s full monty dust-up in Eastern Promises.

These Korean revenge thrillers are not for the faint of heart.  They’re ultraviolent, but strangely emotional.  Some are sinister slow-burns, while others have pulse-pounding narrative propulsion.  They form the backbone of one of the world’s strongest national cinemas.  And each one is among the most cathartic experiences I’ve had watching movies.

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