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So you’re thinking: Korean movies – why bother?
Stick a knife in such thoughts, my friends; it’s not just because they and most other foreign or independent films are able to middle finger much of what’s taken as higher law in Hollywood filmmaking
[Jesus Hollywood Christ’s First Golden Rule: Thou Shalt Not Fuck with Three-Act Story Structure; His Second: God Rest Ye Soul Whose Protagonist Makes Not a Soulful Journey]
but a number of other good reasons exist for giving something like Oldboy, a Korean import directed by Chanwook Park, a spot on your Netflix queue: non-Americans have a sense of humor that is just goddamn weird sometimes.
So in a summer where the theater full of people around me who seemed bizarrely and inappropriately entertained by such awful, freakin’ lines as “Thank you, so are you” in the Fantastic Four, or actually giggling when some poor doof mechanic gets vaporized by an alien Tripod (I mean really, how is that funny? Is it because he’s from Dirty Jerz? It is, isn’t it? You bastards.), popping a pirated copy of this Oldboy flick into the DVD player somehow makes a hazy, humid night seem stickier than normal.
For the record, I don’t condone bootlegging movies. Right.
Stickier why, you ask? Well, let’s just say that the subject matter in Oldboy, that well-worn “guy gets locked in a hotel jail for fifteen years for no reason he can understand… and then gets set free for no reason he can understand” plotline, gets a bit hairy as the movie goes on. Consider my sticky/hairy metaphor here mixed; either way, this is some seriously cool shit, if for no other reason than you know in that inner domain of yours – the one that wants to punish anyone who ever bullied you, punched you, tripped you, knocked the books out of your hand or locked you in a hotel room for half your life – you understand exactly how much you’d want to use a hammer to dislocate that bastard’s teeth. Which may or may not happen in Oldboy.
But to get down to brass tacks here, there’s one scene in the movie that really should be talked about. Lucky for you, I can talk about it without ruining anything vital to the story.
The scene starts like this: the main character, the victim, a guy named Daesu (played by Min-sik Choi), politely asks the camera for anyone of a particular blood type to raise their hand. Oh yeah – some Poor Fool Bad Guy/Hostage has Daesu’s knife at his throat, a bloody rag stuck in his mouth and seriously ought to visit a dentist.
As I sat here watching with my girlfriend, there was, yes, a moment of pleasant confusion. The fog clears when the angle shifts and we see Daesu’s audience: about twenty guys with wooden planks, knives, pipes, various other sorts of low-grade weaponry you might find in a typical “villagers storm the castle with rusty pitchforks” scene, if the castle was actually a hotel in downtown Seoul and the villagers were a bunch of vagrant-styled, bad-as-in-good-looking hired muscle.
Daesu drops the knife and with his weapon – a hammer – a goddamn hammer, and not even a big one – he plunges headlong into this group of men wanting to beat him. Badly.
What follows is both weird and delightful. If you’re my girlfriend, you perhaps will think it is a bit dumb. If you’re me and you like to just go with things, suspend disbelief a little bit and take what’s offered in movies at face value, then you’ll really dig this whole movie based largely on this one scene: a guy beating up twenty (at my best count) Korean toughs with poorly-engineered sticks (are those things made from balsa?) and pipes while the camera scrolls by slowly, from left to right, following the action as it takes place entirely in the hallway of this hotel/prison.
There’s a lot of posturing here. These bad guys can’t seem to get their shit together, man. The fat shirtless one with the huge tattoo on his back is a creampuff, yeah – but that guy with the shaved head ought to be a bit more badass, right? No. Wrong. No one can withstand the revenge-driven onslaught that is Daesu and his whirling hammer.
The camera stops for a minute; pauses as Daesu is buried, gets stomped, the crowd of men all itching for a piece. Is Daesu finished?
Nix that, buddy. What’s a few headkicks to a man with a passion?
He grabs Nearest Tough Guy in some sort of half single-leg takedown maneuver, and the camera, dutifully following along, pans in reverse now, to the left, as Daesu and his strength of fifteen men uses this Nearest Tough Guy as a human plow. It’s tenpin bowling time, man. These guys don’t stand a chance.
Bad guy gets: hammer to gut. Daesu gets: balsa wood split across back. Wall gets: Daesu’s frenzied hammer. Kick to gut, kick to small of back right in that tenderloin area. It’s a pile-on again. Headkicks, beatings doled. Are some of these guys wearing slippers? Kick-kick-punch. Five inch knife between the shoulderblades, right down the ol’ rotator cuff.
A pause. A prod. Is Daesu bested? The camera waits patiently. The toughs catch a breather. They grab at their aching stomachs and jaws. Is he dead?
Like I said, it’s pretty delightful. Knife in back, he gets up and switches to fisticuffs; enough of that hammer, damn nuisance weapon. Fat Guy gets three swift punches to the face, these men have dropped like flies; no, they’re crawling like maggots, squirming and roaching around in pain.
As the elevator dings for Floor #Destruction and the camera takes its first cut since before the action started, Daesu can only smile. Daesu: 1, twenty bad guys: 0.
It’s wonky, really. It’s completely gratuitous violence, but it works. It shows that Daesu is a man possessed, so in that regard it works to further our understanding of the character and his deeply-rooted motivations… if you care about such things – and seriously, who does? Either way, you can just about picture the director, the cinematographer, the fight choreographer high-fiving each other in the editing room when the clock on this single cut shows two minutes, forty seconds.
I counted.
Two minutes, forty seconds of Korean-style, imported cinematic revenge – we should all have time for that.
Evan Young is: magazine editor by day, comic book writer (the forgotten) by night.

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