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Revenge dramas, long a staple of exploitation cinema, used to dress up occasionally for the art house. Notable examples include Kon Ichikawa’s An Actor’s Revenge and Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, both of which tempered visceral impact with deliberate pacing and exacting stylization. Some more recent practitioners of the genre are no less interested in style, but they don’t think formal elegance rules out splatter. For the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Kim Ki-duk, and Park Chan-wook, a bloody stump is an artistic statement.
The last two of those directors are from South Korea, a country that seems to have emerged from authoritarian rule in a spirit of ornery glee. Since Park’s Oldboy took the second-place prize at Cannes last year—awarded by a Tarantino-led jury—the film’s been discussed principally for its violence, the most intense of which is actually suggested rather than shown. Yet this high-pitched parable also contains a hint of political allegory. Tormented protagonist Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is held for 15 years in a flophouse of a private prison; cable TV, his only contact with humanity, shows him that he’s wanted (wrongly) in his wife’s murder, and also recounts Princess Di’s death, the 9/11 attacks, the Korea-Japan World Cup, and the liberalization of South Korean politics. When Dae-su is finally released, he’s in a world he never made—in more ways than one.
Introduced drunk, belligerent, and in police custody on his daughter’s third birthday, Dae-su is no ideal husband. He’s bailed out by a pal, but amid a welter of jump cuts and flash forwards, Dae-su finds that he’s escaped the drunk tank only to be incarcerated long-term by some unofficial (and unknown) authority. After all those years of vowing vengeance, eating nothing but fried dumplings, and training for a bout with his anonymous jailer, the prisoner wakes up in a box on a roof, where a suicidal man briefly diverts his attention. On the street, a scruffy passer-by hands him a cell phone and a wallet: Dae-su is still a player in someone’s game.
Adjourning to a sushi bar, Dae-su meets Mido (Gang Hye-jung), a pretty young chef he’s seen on a TV cooking show. He gets her attention by—Indelible Scene No. 1—eating a live octopus and, later, trying to rape her. He and Mido become allies and eventually lovers as Dae-su searches for his daughter (adopted by a couple in Sweden, he’s told) and the restaurant that supplied 15 years’ worth of dumplings. Using a hammer to bash heads and pull teeth—Indelible Scene No. 2, although not so graphic as you may have heard—Dae-su finds his way to his secret tormentor. But that’s not such an accomplishment, it turns out, because Lee Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae) wants to be found. Lee then gives Dae-su five days to uncover just what he did to provoke his downfall—or Mido will die. The riddle, which turns on an incident from prep-school days, isn’t especially compelling. But Lee keeps introducing new punishments until a defeated Dae-su finally—well, never mind, but it’s Indelible Scene No. 3.
Park co-wrote the script with Hwang Jo-yun and Lim Joon-hyung, but his essential collaborators are Choi, who’s even more feral here than as the wild-man painter of 2003’s Chihwaseon; cinematographer Jung Jung-hoon; and editor Kim Sang-bum. If the story ultimately disappoints, the film’s images, compositions, and pacing rarely do. They thrust the viewer inside Dae-su’s confusion and rage, emulating his sense of being perpetually confounded, victimized, and upended. Lurid as it is, Oldboy has more of a human touch than the tiresome, soulless Sin City.
A wild-eyed foray into territory that turns out not to be all that exotic, Park’s film recalls Fatih Akin’s sex-drugs-and-bloodsports Head-On more than either volume of Kill Bill. Beneath Oldboy’s giddy ferocity are traditional family values and some shopworn narrative devices—indeed, no movie has staked so much on the power of Asian hypnotists since the original Manchurian Candidate. Although Dae-su bears little resemblance to Sherlock Holmes, this flick is descended from the Victorian drawing-room mystery, with its deranged criminal masterminds who spin intricate plots and the supremely rational detectives who decipher them. Oldboy merely shows how to modernize that formula for a crazed new world: Just make the sleuth as berserk as the villain and marinate the whole thing in human blood. Lee Woo-jin may be the evil manipulator of this world, but he has a rival in Park Chan-wook.
“The history of cinema is the history of boys photographing girls,” Jean-Luc Godard reputedly once said, but there’s more than one male-centered way to depict the eternal feminine. Eros, a trio of thematically linked short films by a troika of international art-cinema luminaries, has three—or rather, two and a half. Both 92-year-old Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni and American movie brat Steven Soderbergh represent women as enigmatic, interchangeable, and frequently undressed, but at least the younger director has a sense of humor about it. It’s only Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-wai who shows any empathy for his female subject.
Wong’s The Hand opens this triptych with another of his tales of hapless love in a lost (and rainy) ’60s Hong Kong. A tailor’s young new assistant, Zhang (Chang Chen), goes to meet a client, imperious courtesan Hua (Gong Li), who startles, intimidates, and beguiles him. Over time, Zhang grows more accomplished, while Hua and her fortunes inevitably decline. Eventually, the two meet in a scene that parallels the opening one but shows how the power in their relationship has shifted. Shot mostly in shadowy green- and amber-tinted interiors by longtime Wong collaborator Christopher Doyle, The Hand uses closeups, drifting camera, and point-of-view shots to create an intense intimacy. This is Zhang’s story, but his feelings for Hua give the episode an exquisite tenderness.
There’s no such rapport for the dame(s) in Soderbergh’s half-baked Equilibrium, which opens with a full-color nude who’s observed while getting dressed. Cut to the black-and-white real world, where ’50s advertising exec Nick Penrose (Robert Downey Jr.) explains to comically distracted psychiatrist Dr. Pearl (Alan Arkin) that this woman is a creature in a recurring dream. There are several humorous motifs here, including a genre gag: Illuminated by slices of harsh light, the shrink’s office looks as if it should belong to a hard-boiled detective, and Penrose acts as if that were what the doc is. He wants Dr. Pearl to track down that dream broad, and pronto. When she does reappear, however, the effect is neither erotic nor especially interesting.
Nothing happens quickly in Antonioni’s aimlessly picturesque The Dangerous Thread of Things, but then nothing really happens—if you don’t count two attractive women’s (Regina Nemni and Luisa Ranieri) getting naked. In a discerning tour guide’s Tuscan landscape of beach, garden, forest, and elegantly wasted old buildings, a man (Christopher Buchholz) spends time with one woman, then the other. Eros’ theme song is Caetano Veloso’s cooing “Michelangelo Antonioni,” and the project was conceived as a tribute to the venerable filmmaker. But his own wispy contribution is a slight to the memory of the strong women he conjured in such movies as L’Avventura and The Red Desert.CP