"Oldboy" was a touchstone of Asian cinema at the time, just like "Infernal Affairs" before it and "Ip Man" after it: Every self-respecting Asian-film fan seemed to have watched it and had an opinion about it. But "Oldboy" differs from those other two titles in a very interesting way: It's divisive. To this day, I hear as many zero-star reviews about it as four- or five-star reviews (depending on what scale suits the viewer).
A lot of people think mixed reviews are the sign of a bad movie. I couldn't disagree more; those are exactly the movies everyone should be watching, the ones that start and endlessly fuel conversations -- think "Dancer in the Dark" or "Lost in Translation" or "Drive." A movie that offends as many people as it uplifts is one that hasn't compromised, one made by a director who had no purpose in mind other than to indulge his/her own visions (and Fuck you if you can't get with them). People spend so much time grousing about movies that ply the middle of the road, then they seize up when one comes along that disregards any sort of consensus. Go figure.
Hell, I'd even heard people say they couldn't finish watching "Oldboy," for its visuals alone. My brother was one of these -- said the movie's violence made no sense to him and he had to turn it off, even sitting at home watching the DVD.
My friend Burke, a guy whose tastes I respected even if I didn't agree with him much, just told me, cryptically, "I want you to watch it and tell me what you think."
So in I went, by myself, at 10 p.m. on a weeknight. And ended up watching what would become my favorite Korean movie.
That was a few years after the Korean Wave had started, but I had been disappointed by the movement up to that point. The movies everyone talked about -- "Joint Security Area," also directed by Park, and "Shiri" -- I just found small-minded and obvious and excessively apologetic and naive about North Korea. (Both movies were made around the time of the inter-Korean summit, and reunification fever was high.)
Jun Ji-hyun (now Gianna Jun -- Korean women are like BAPs when it comes to naming) is one of the worst actresses I've ever seen, so I hated "My Sassy Girl." Not to mention, it was shapeless and just seemed an excuse for Korean people to trot around and act Korean (an unfortunate side effect of the screen quota and the low standards it engendered, I think).
I got the feeling that the Korean Wave was all smoke and mirrors, that people were jazzed by the cinematography and sometimes the acting, but that the editing and writing were a mess.
The standout for me at the time, Lee Chang-dong's "Peppermint Candy," was a great artistic achievement -- yet pathologically Korean and thus doomed to the arthouses.
Anyway, "Oldboy" -- this was some different shit. It took the protagonist and the audience to Hell -- then brought them back, a successful Orpheus tale. It played by its own rules, but by rules nonetheless. It flipped hero and villain and narrative and answered the questions it raised, in a way that didn't cheat. It plumbed the deepest corners of our minds, yet still respected story and structure. I found it darkly beautiful (or is that beautifully dark?).
I went back for "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance," and after a couple viewings I now see it as Park's best (as in most accomplished) work among those I've seen. It lacks the cohesiveness of "Oldboy," but the way it unfolds its theme -- the reopening of old wounds -- through scenes of raw, sorrowful, horrific, bizarre beauty is damn near painterly.
Then "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" and "Thirst" made me a fan for life. (Props to my friend Fisk, one of the great white knights of Asian cinema, for hooking me up with DVDs and tickets when I needed them.)
Park deserves his rep as Korea's best-known director -- even if people usually just refer to him as "the guy who directed 'Oldboy.'" (It's "BOCK Chon Ook," no W pronounced, case'n you wanna get specific.) He rules Korean cinema for the same reason Kurosawa and Zhang Yimou ruled their countries' film industries: He satisfies the arthouse and the grindhouse.
Most Asian film that makes it into this country is on one of those ends of the spectrum -- those are the easiest markets to sell to, the cineastes and the fanboys. It's the stuff in the middle, like comedies and romances, that have a tougher time finding an audience. Park's stuff is extreme but artfully done, with themes that beg for interpretation. Everyone goes home happy.
So anyway, "Stoker." What struck me most about the movie was its language -- blunt, awkward, literal. I think this is a cultural difference, an attempt to be terse that just doesn't work in English. Every language has particular traits, and one of English's is its huge vocabulary. With all those words, you can get specific in ways that you can't with less wordy languages like Chinese and Korean and French. But the downside is, the omission of words in English is glaring and usually seems forced.
Korean is different, a language that's as much about what's unsaid as what's said. And I think that's partly why Park's movies are so powerful. People in his movies move in the most subterranean layers of Korean society -- vampires, black-market organ dealers, crimelords -- yet, because of the modesty and decorum built into the language, talk and for the most part operate like ordinary citizens. The greatest crises they face, inexpressible as they are, are left to the imagination.
For a movie that Park didn't write (the writer was Wentworth Miller, best known as The Cute One on "Prison Break"), it does share quite a few elements with his best-known movies: family members who've been separated violently, incest, harm to a child, sex entwined with death, the grooming of a killer, our darker natures. For that alone, I do salute the filmmakers -- these are subjects that Hollywood doesn't like to touch. The movie's unconventional as Park's films always are.
Where it ultimately goes wrong, I think, is in its insistence on the three-act structure and a tidy 90-minute-area running time. The evil uncle, Charlie (Matthew Goode), gets introduced. He does weird shit. A couple revelations lead up to a big confrontation between him, the daughter India (Mia Wasikowska) and the widow Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). Movie ends somewhat ambiguously, in foreign film style, but honestly it all comes down to a couple violent money shots.
Typical Hollywood moviegoers, narrative-obsessed as I've learned them to be, will probably complain most about Charlie's backstory, which gets told hastily in the final reels and is about as much of a letdown as the denouement to "Psycho." It explains the movie's mysteries a little too conveniently while introducing a bunch of logical inconsistencies that I won't get into. In short, it gives the movie somewhat of a shaggy-dog ending that does a disservice to the shocks that come before it. Instead of coming off like a darkly impressionistic indictment of society like Park's Korean works, the movie just seems like a geek show, out to offend.
But anyway, I'll keep watching for more Park flicks in America just on account of the subject matter they might contain -- maybe that'll become his legacy here, starting conversations that Americans don't want to have. In the meantime, he's an "internationally acclaimed director," a condescending label (let's be frank) that John Woo himself never quite summitted.