Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy (and yes, before you ask, it’s written as one word)

Greetings Loved Ones! Lius Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

Have you ever watched a movie that was so strange, so disturbing, and yet so thoroughly gripping, that afterwards you felt both the need to vomit and the need to see it again? If you haven’t, then perhaps you should stop reading. If you have, then you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about in this review of Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy. But, before I delve any deeper into my dissection of this delightfully despicable picture, I feel I should tell you a little something about myself.

I absolutely love foreign films, particularly those that come out of East Asia. My favorite directors are Zhang Yimou from China, Wong Kar Wai from Hong Kong, Ang Lee from Taiwan and Akira Kurosawa from Japan. I’m always on the lookout for new Asian movies and, since generally only the creme-de-la-creme of such films ever make it to American theaters, I usually find absolutely stunning pictures.

Anyway, a couple weeks back I was looking for something to watch in the “foreign” section of Netflix, and I kept coming across this Korean-language crime-thriller called Oldboy. I ended up watching something else, but the name stuck with me. A couple days later, I typed it into Google and discovered some shocking facts about it. Not only had it been a critical and financial success back in Korea, it had garnered a huge cult following in the US, and CNN had even listed it as “The Greatest Asian Movie of All Time!” Now, in general, most Americans don’t share my taste in foreign films, so the fact that so many other Americans were liking this movie told me that it was REALLY good. I knew, right then and there, that it had to be one of those truly great pictures–like Seven Samurai and Rashoman–that transcend cultural and linguistic barriers. My interest in the movie only increased when I discovered that Spike Lee was doing an American re-make of it. There’s that old saying, “Imitation is the highest form of flattery,” and some of the greatest Asian movies of all time (Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Infernal Affairs) were so good that admiring American directors decided to remake them (The Magnificent Seven, A Fist Full of Dollars, and The Departed).

There was, of course, a part of me that was afraid to watch the movie. Rarely, if ever, do films or books live up to our expectations, and with a classification like “The Greatest Asian Movie of All Time,” Oldboy had some pretty high hopes riding on it. I didn’t want to watch it and discover that, like Star Wars and Avatar, it was weak in both plot and acting, and the only reason that people liked it was for its special effects. Eventually, however, I was able to overcome my fear and watch the film. Was it what I expected it to be? No. Was it still enjoyable? Yes! Oldboy might not be the greatest Asian movie of all time, but it is definitely an exciting, highly original, thought-provoking film with several things to like about it.

The first and foremost of these things is the fact that its story is highly unique. At first glance, Oldboy appears to be nothing but a B-grade revenge thriller. It certainly has all the familiar symptoms of one–man loses his wife, vows to find the person responsible, is aided on his quest by an attractive young woman whom he eventually falls for, etc. But, unlike a B-grade revenge thriller, Oldboy is able to turn its cliche characters and plot around and provide something fresh and exciting.

Perhaps I should elaborate. Oldboy follows the trials and tribulations of Oh Dae-Su, a drunken businessmen who, on his daughter’s sixth birthday, is kidnapped and locked in a prison cell made to look like a hotel room. He spends the next fifteen years there, shadow-boxing, plotting revenge, and watching the world change through his television. It is through this later practice that he learns that, back in the real world, his wife has been killed and he has been implicated in her murder. Finally, after exactly fifteen years of incarceration, Oh Dae-Su is released. As he searches for the one who killed his wife and locked him up, he becomes acquainted with a cute, quirky young woman named Mido. Eventually, the two of them fall in love and have sex, a fact which proves highly significant later in the movie. After a couple days of searching, the two of them find the culprit, a former classmate of Oh Dae-Su’s named Lee Woo-Jin. Woo-Jin makes a deal with them; if, in five days, they can find out why he locked up Oh Dae-Su, he will kill himself. Oh Dae-Su then follows a series of clues that lead him back to his High School. There, he recalls how, one day, completely by accident, he stumbled upon Woo-Jin having sex with his sister, Soo-Ah, in an empty classroom. Doing what any confused young man would have done in his position, Oh Dae-Su told his closest friend about it, who, in turn, told everyone else about it. As a result of the stress caused by comments other people made, Soo-Ah suffered from false signs of pregnancy. This eventually caused her to commit suicide, which, in turn, drove her brother insane with the desire for revenge. Believing that he has discovered why Woo-Jin locked him up, Oh Dae-Su confronts the former in his penthouse apartment. He apologizes for unintentionally contributing to Soo-Ah’s death, but also demands that Woo-Jin uphold their deal and kill himself. He says that Woo-Jin has had his revenge, and that, now, he ought to be allowed to have his own. Woo-Jin merely laughs and reveals to Oh Dae-Su what his true revenge was–getting Oh Dae-Su to unwittingly commit incest with his daughter. He explains how, before releasing Oh Dae-Su back into the real world, he had a hypnotist alter the later’s memories so that he would be unable to recognize Mido, his daughter, for who she really was. Terrified and appalled, Oh Dae-Su begs Woo-Jin to not tell Mido about the true nature of their relationship, and even goes so far as to cut off the tip of his tongue as a sign of penance. Woo-JIn agrees and, after briefly re-living the day of his sister’s suicide, kills himself. Some time later, Oh Dae-su is shown sitting in a winter landscape with the hypnotist whom Woo-jin used. Touched by his handwritten story and pleas, she hypnotizes him and alters his memories so that he forgets the terrible secret. Mi-do then finds Dae-su alone in the snow, and tells him she loves him before embracing him. Dae-su breaks into a wide smile, but it is quickly replaced by a look of pain, bringing into question whether the hypnosis worked.

As you can see, Oldboy’s plot is both strange and disturbing, and yet it is precisely this strangeness, this refusal to adhere to the norms of story-telling, that makes it so unique. Rather than simply letting Oh Dae-Su defeat his foe and live happily ever after, director Park Chan-Wook has him unconsciously play into another man’s plot, and thus unintentionally defeat himself. Instead of having the movie have a painfully clear, no-room-for-interpretation-type ending, Park has the film conclude in a manner nebulous enough to leave the audience wondering. Did the hypnosis work? When Mido said she loved Dae-Su at the end, did she mean that as a father or as a lover? Now that Woo-Jin is dead and all the violence is past, what will become of these characters? Who knows? Then again, who wants to know? After all, sometimes its that last little hint of mystery–that tiny detail that never quite gets explained–that determines whether a person loves a movie or simply likes it.

The second thing I like about Oldboy is the fact that it’s filled with puzzling images that challenge my perceptions. I don’t know about you, but I personally love it when a work of art dares me to think, and Oldboy  most certainly does that. There are several times in the movie when strange things simply happen, and you’re left wondering what Park’s intention was when he included them in the picture. For example, there’s a scene where Dae-Su and Mido are talking about something, and then, for no reason whatsoever, the subject of ants–yes, the tiny little bugs–is brought up. As if this weren’t weird enough, the movie then cuts to this two minute shot of Mido riding the subway with a man-sized insect. No explanation is ever given for the inclusion of this bizarre little vignette, so its up to the individual audience member to interpret it however he or she likes. Personally, I think its an attempt by the director to give Mido–an otherwise emotionally flat character–some depth. See, ants are generally perceived as tiny, insignificant creatures who ultimately live short, insignificant lives, so, when Mido has a fantasy about riding a train with an ant, she is trying to convey that, sometimes, she feels like an ant in terms of how other people perceive her. But hey, that’s just my interpretation.

Anyway, in general I’d give Oldboy a rating of 7 out of 10. It’ has some highly unique images, in addition to an incredibly original story, and who wouldn’t like to see a movie with those characteristics? On the other hand, it does have some pretty violent scenes–like the one where Dae-Su knocks out this guy’s teeth with a hammer–and it does explore the sickening subject of incest in some detail. Then again, its no more violent or sexual than Game of Thrones, and if you can stomach that, then I don’t think you’ll have any problems.

Alright, I’m signing off for today. I hope you enjoyed, or at least tolerated, my review. If you’ve seen the film and would like to share your own interpretations, by all means, do so.

Nathan Liu

P.S. Here are some movies from the directors I listed.

From Zhang Yimou…

1. Hero,

2. House of Flying Daggers,

3. The Flowers of War,

4. Raise the Red Lantern,

& 5. Red Sorghum.

From Akira Kurosawa…

1. Seven Samurai,

2. Yojimbo,

3. Rashoman,

4. Throne of Blood,

5. Ikiru,

6. Hidden Fortress,

7. Ran,

& 8. Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams.

From Wong Kar Wai…

1. The Grand Master,

2. In the Mood for Love,

& 3. Chungking Express.

From Ang Lee…

1. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,

2. Lust, Caution,

3. Eat, Drink, Man, Woman,

4. Brokeback Mountain,

& 5. Life of Pi.

 

 

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Why “Inglorious Bastards” Is Inglorious To The End

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

Upon its release in 2009, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards was met with critical acclaim and box office boom. The film–which tells the story of two plots to assassinate Hitler, one made by a young French Jewish cinema proprietor, the other by a team of Jewish-American soldiers—was nominated for numerous awards, and made an Oscar winner and international star out of Austrian actor Christoph Waltz.

At the time of its release, my parents and I were just getting settled in our new home after spending five years in Germany. I had loved every minute of my time overseas, and I was eager to share my experiences with anyone who would listen. Unfortunately, these dreams never came to fruition. Instead of showing interest, or even curiosity, at the fact that I grew up in another country and spoke another language, other children mocked and harassed me–particularly of the accent that I’d acquired over the years. They called me horrible names like Nazi and Jew-Killer, and claimed that the Holocaust was my fault. Just a few problems with that theory; one, I’m about seventy years too young to have been there; two, I’m not even German: and three, I have a grandfather and a great uncle who both fought for the Allies.  Of course, when I pointed these facts out to my tormentors, it did nothing to stop them. If anything, it just made things worse.

My anguish reached an all time high when Inglorious Bastards hit the theaters. Now, whenever children called me Nazi, they did it with Brad Pitt’s absurdly strong Southern accent, and they threatened to call upon Donny “The Bear Jew” Donnowitz to “take his big bat” and “beat my ass to death with it.” Needless to say, I had no desire to see the movie after that. In fact, I promised myself right then and there that I would never watch it.

Fast forward four years–I’m eighteen, slightly more mature, and have decided to break my own oath. I figure now I’m old enough to get through the film without getting too upset. I tell myself that, even if I don’t like it, at least now I can use details from the picture to support my dislike.

Well, I’ve seen Inglorious Bastards, and what I have to say about the movie is this. It’s certainly not the worst thing to have ever hit the big screen. As an action film, it’s entertaining and reasonably well acted. It’s also shot primarily in French and German–a fact that I, as a die-hard fan of foreign-language films, was pleased to discover. Better yet is the fact that Daniel Brühl, one of my favorite actors from my years in Germany, is featured in it.

Beyond these small positive features, however, the film still flops. The first issue I had with this film is that it is gratuitously violent. Now, I bet some of you are thinking, “Well, it’s a war movie. What do you expect?” But you see, unlike other violent war films, like Glory and Saving Private Ryan, this violence has no greater purpose. Inglorious Bastards is violent simply for the sake of being violent. Within this nearly three hour picture, several people are scalped, some have swastikas carved on their foreheads, one gentleman gets his brains bashed out, and another gets his balls shot off at point blank. Unless you have a strong stomach, I doubt you can take the carnage that unfolds before the camera.

The second thing I didn’t like about this picture was that, for a movie, which claims to be a Jew-empowering revenge fantasy, it is incredibly lacking in Jewish content. Other Holocaust and World War 2 films include at least a minimal exploration of the beautiful religion that was persecuted by the Nazis, but not this one. You’ll find no recitations in Hebrew, references to the Talmud, or descriptions of traditions observed on the High Holidays in this picture. Instead, the film’s Jewish characters–many of whom are portrayed by Christian actors–are shown as sadistic psychopaths dealing out horrendous punishments to their German prisoners, many of whom don’t even express anti-Semitic views. The one positive aspect of this lack of attention to Jewish culture is the fact that Jewish stereotypes and racial epithets are largely avoided.

The third issue I had with the movie is that the plot is too absurd to take seriously. A truly great film is one that is able to make a fictional world seem real, so, Inglorious Bastards is anything but a great film. It contradicts history in so many ways, and is populated by so many two dimensional characters that, eventually, you’re forced to throw up your hands and say “What the hell?”

Let me give you an example. The movie revolves around a group of Jewish-American soldiers who have been given orders to collect 100 Nazi scalps each. Their leader, Lieutenant Aldo Reine (Brad Pitt) claims that all Germans are “the foot-soldiers of a Jew-hating, masse-murdering maniac who need to be destroyed.” First of all, that statement just isn’t true. Many Germans only joined the Nazi Party because they had no choice, and many more did everything in their power to undermine Hitler’s anti-Semitic regime. If you don’t believe me, look up the heroic actions of such Germans as Oskar Schindler, Wilm Hosenfeld, Claus Von Stauffenberg and Heinz Drossel. Secondly, this film is set in 1943, two whole years before any of the Allied Powers knew about the Death Camps, so how exactly would Reine know that Hitler was “mass-murdering?” Besides, all historical evidence indicates that, even if the Allies had known about the Fuehrer’s “final solution,” they probably wouldn’t have taken any steps to stop it. Many people in Britain, France, Russia and the United States shared the Nazi’s anti-Semitic views. In the years before the war, they largely ignored the stories of destruction and pogrom that reached them. A perfect example of their indifference to the plight of the Jews is the 1939 voyage of the Saint Louis, where President Roosevelt denied a German ship filled with Jewish refugees entrance to the United States. In the real world, the Allies didn’t care enough about the well being of the Jews to organize an elite unit of soldiers to avenge them.

Another example of the film’s lack of attention to reality is the ease with which the protagonists bring down the entire German government. They do this by having all the Nazi high command gather in a movie theater in Paris to watch a propaganda film, and then burn them to a crisp and riddle them with machine-gun fire. First of all, never, and I mean never, would every high-ranking member of the German government, Military, Gestapo, SS, and Ministry of Propaganda decide to meet at one place and one time. Anyone with common sense can see that coming together in a big group and having little to no security is just plain stupid. Say what you like about the Nazis, but they definitely weren’t THAT stupid. Also, why would these Bigwigs go all the way to France just to watch a movie? If ever all these higher-ups were to meet in one place (which they never would) a far more likely place would be Berlin. Another thing–why would the film’s protagonists decide to kill off EVERY member of the German government? In the movie, they make it out as though doing this will bring about an immediate end to the war. I hate to disappoint any audience member who might have believed this but, in the real world, doing that would have had the exact opposite effect. When we toppled Saddam Hussein in the early 2000s, we also dissolved the Ba’ath Party and the pre-existing Iraqi government. This created a power vacuum and generated extreme instability in the region. If, as the film portrays it, the entire Nazi government had been executed in one fell swoop, there would have been no one left to order the remaining German troops to surrender, no one left to negotiate with the Allies, and no one left to discontinue the Concentration camps. This just goes to show you that, despite everything that movies like this try to tell you, violence really isn’t the answer. Anyway, it is instances like this, instances in which there is a blatant lack of attention to reality in the film, that seriously decreased my enjoyment of it.

The fourth and final reason that this film failed in my opinion is the fact that it lacks any likable characters. I can only enjoy a movie where there are people in it that are relatable, and Inglorious Bastards lacks any such people. In Inglorious Bastards, the “good-guys” are redneck American soldiers who scalp people for fun, and the “bad-guys” are Nazis. Who am I supposed to side with? In fact, the only remotely likable character in the entire picture is a German Sergeant named Wilhelm, and he’s only featured in one scene where, you guessed it, he gets killed. I don’t know about you, but I can’t endure an ultra-violent, three-hour war movie without having at least one character to sympathize with.

On average I would give this movie a rating of 5 out of 10. It’s action-packed and well acted, but it’s also emotionally flat and too unrealistic to take seriously. Unless you’ve got a thing for historically inaccurate war flicks that feature 70s style soundtracks, I wouldn’t recommend it. But, hey, that’s just me. If you actually enjoyed the film, and would like to engage me in a debate, by all means, do so. All right! That’s’ all for today. See you!

Nathan Liu

Dead Man, Or When Cormac McCarthy Met Neil Young

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

Slow-paced, surreal, and populated by confusingly complex characters, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man is a fascinating picture that I’ll not soon forget.

Described by some critics as a “Psychedelic Western,” the film is, in essence, the drawn out death scene of William Blake, a shy and unassuming accountant from Cleveland who, due to a misunderstanding, has been shot and has killed a man. Fearing retribution for the murder, Blake escapes into the wild and journeys through a violent, dream-like landscape, the strangeness of which is only enhanced by the, mostly-improvised, acid guitar soundtrack by Neil Young. The film is shot entirely in black and white, and is told in a very unique format. Each scene is presented as a separate, two to three minute episode. Jarmusch has his characters speak very little dialogue, and instead relies on Young’s surrealist guitar playing to set the tone for each scene. When a character does speak, his or her sentences are as short and confusing as those found in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Dead Man is similar to Blood Meridian in another way–it acts as a critique of the “Manifest Destiny” mantra that fueled Westward expansion. Both works show the American West as a chaotic place of death and decay. Instead of the fertile, virgin lands that, in 1898, historian Frederick Jackson Turner claimed were so vital to American society, both Dead Man and Blood Meridian show the spread of what one might call “white blight”–viral meanness and ignorance spread by European industrialists onto the lands of the indigenous population. Another unique aspect of Dead Man is the fact that, while it certainly criticizes White America’s slaughter of Native Americans, it does not, like so many other Westerns, employ the “noble savage” stereotype. Along his weird and wandering journey, the character Blake is accompanied by a strong, opinionated and, most importantly, flawed, Native American named Nobody. Nobody was captured and educated by the British, and so is far more versed in poetry and literature than Blake. He actually assumes that Blake is a reincarnation of the famous English poet of the same name, and it is because of this that he chooses to assist the former on his journey towards death. They’re relationship is one of the most interesting that I’ve ever seen unfold on screen.

I would love to say more, but I feel that if I expressed ALL my views on this fascinating picture, my writings would take up the complete space of nearly half a dozen books. I’ll say this, the film was enjoyable and thought provoking. It told a strange, cerebral story in a strange, cerebral format. Overall, I would give the picture a rating of 8 out of 10, and would highly recommend it to any analytical moviegoer.

Nathan Liu

Was “Do The Right Thing” Really The Right Thing To Watch?

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

Rarely, if ever, have I seen my parents agree on anything–especially movies. So imagine my shock when, two weeks ago, I discovered a film that both of them liked. The film in question was Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee’s 1989 race riot flick, which, in 1999, was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress. Both my parents praised the film for its unique artistic style, as well as its social commentary, and strongly suggested that I watch it. I agreed to their proposition rather enthusiastically. As both a frequent patron of the cinema, and an individual deeply fascinated by the politics of race, Do the Right Thing seemed right up my alley. I rented it, watched it, and now I’d like to share some of my opinions.

Let me start with what I liked about it. The film’s imagery is both interesting and effective. Do the Right Thing tells the story of a neighborhood’s simmering racial tension, which comes to a head and culminates in tragedy on the hottest day of the summer. Lee artfully illustrates the heat of the day by having all the film’s images carry a reddish-orange hue, and he effectively demonstrates the dizzying, mind-dulling effect that this heat can have on people by using crooked shots and warped focus. The soundtrack also lends itself to the tension of the story. Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” is blared several times throughout the film, and generally, when it is played, argument or violence ensues. With its booming bass and provocative lyrics, “Fight the Power” is the perfect soundtrack for a film concerning race riots. Finally, some of the questions raised in the film are still relevant. At one point in the movie, a disgruntled black man asks his friends why, in general, it is so much easier for immigrants from Korea or elsewhere to find jobs and set up their own businesses than Black Americans. “Either those Koreans are geniuses,” he says, “or we’re just plain stupid.” It’s not an easy question to answer, and its one that struck close to home. As the grandchild of a successful Chinese doctor, I have often wondered why my family should experience so much success while so many others live in poverty, and in his film, Lee is able to articulate these uncertainties perfectly.

Now for the things that I didn’t like. First of all, the acting in this movie is extremely melodramatic. Perhaps this was a deliberate move on Lee’s part. Perhaps he asked the actors to behave in an illogical, over the top manner as a means of demonstrating how illogical and over the top people can be when they’re acting out of hatred. Still, the absurdity of some of the acting seriously decreased my enjoyment of the picture. Secondly, as entertaining and artistically unique as the film is, I believe that it’s very much one that’s only applicable to the 80s. The hairstyles, clothing, and cultural references made in the film can only exist in that time period, and for a film that seeks to address the timeless issue of race in this country, having it only be applicable to one time period can be a serious disadvantage. Thirdly, as with any film in which race is a prominent topic of discussion; Do the Right Thing shows its share of racial stereotypes. The Korean owners of the local fruit stand are shown as incompetent, impatient, and incapable of speaking even the most Basic English. The White Italian owners of Sol’s Famous Pizzeria have comically thick Brooklyn accents, greasy hairstyles and gaudy chains laden with crucifixes. The actor who portrays the disabled man that wanders the streets of the neighborhood makes no effort to give his character depth, and instead speaks with an absurd cross between a stutter and a stroke. My point is, if Spike Lee wishes to end discrimination in America, racial or otherwise, maybe he shouldn’t have the characters in his films feed into ugly stereotypes.

On a scale of one to ten, with ten being the absolute best a film can be, I would give Do the Right Thing a rating of 6.5 to 7. It’s entertaining, artistically unique and, at least for me, thought provoking. It’s certainly not the worst film to see in your spare time.

That’s all for today. I hope you guys found my review helpful or, at the very least, interesting. These are just my opinions, and if you disagree with them, please don’t hesitate to comment.

Nathan Liu