Sunday, December 1, 2013

New Old: Spike Lee's OLDBOY


I’m not sure who the audience is for Spike Lee’s Oldboy, a sadistic black comitragedy revenge story, and a remake of Park Chan-wook’s 2003 South Korean adaptation of Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi’s Japanese manga. I don’t know who this is for, but I do know I must be one of them. I saw Park’s film some time after it was released in the States in 2005 and liked it quite a bit, but haven’t seen it since. I’m a fan of Spike Lee’s visual feistiness and energetic – distractible, even – thematic liveliness. With Oldboy, he’s honed in on his most straightforward thriller narrative since 2006’s Inside Man, funny since it’s a film that straightforwardly follows the original’s disorienting story down a gnarled path cloaked in grim mystery and propelled by convoluted and pulpy twists. The movie is peculiar, dark, fitfully involving, and rarely dull. It’s full of nasty gore, brutalizing suspense, and sick sensationalism and Lee leans into it, making a film of astonishing visual flourishes and coaxing entertainingly chewy B-movie performances out of a game cast.

The plot, for those who’ve seen the original, has a sense of déjà vu mingled with the unease, a blending of inevitability in general and surprise in the specifics. It involves a drunk (Josh Brolin) who stumbles around after a dinner with a big potential client, a meeting for which he missed his daughter’s third birthday, goes disastrously wrong. Just when you think things can’t get any worse for him, he’s kidnapped and locked in what looks like a meager hotel room where he’s held prisoner for twenty years. He has no idea who did this to him, and never sees his captor or much of the outside world, although on the TV he sees a news report of his wife’s murder and daughter’s adoption by a loving couple. He’s considered the only suspect in his wife’s death, having been framed by the same mysterious person or people who have him locked up. Once freed – he’s knocked out and wakes up in a storage trunk in the middle of a field – he is a fugitive. He desperately wants to find his daughter, clear his name, and figure out who is responsible for all this torture in order to get his revenge.

Brolin is a sturdy center for the strange plot. He gets the help of an old buddy (Michael Imperioli) who calls a kind nurse (Elizabeth Olsen) to help get him back to health. She quickly discovers the man’s unbelievable story and, well, believes him. Together they attempt to unravel the mystery. A threatening voice (Sharlto Copley) calls Brolin on the iPhone left with im in the trunk. (A funny moment of befuddlement crosses Brolin’s face and hands as he turns the foreign object on the first time.) The voice matter-of-factly informs the ex-prisoner that he’ll face grave consequences if he can’t 1.) identify the voice and 2.) explain why this man did such horrible things to him. Our journey to the conclusion includes a few gut-churning twists and several moments of sustained brutal violence lingered upon with grotesque satisfaction. Note what we see – it’s so not implied – happen to the neck of a bad guy played by Samuel L. Jackson. The sequence is a torturous experience.

But the pain and violence mix freely with camp. It’s all excess, grim and goofy alike, intense either way. Take the choice supporting roles, for example. They’re populated with actors visibly tickled with the choices they’ve been allowed or invited to make. Jackson’s baddie is bald but for a cloud of blonde hair dead center on the top of his head. He chews his words wildly around the gold lip ring unsuccessfully pulling focus from his hairdo. And then there’s Copley’s villain! In this mannered, loopy performance he’s playing a posh weirdo of a baddie as if he were imagining what Peter Sellers’ Vincent Price impression would look like. While Brolin, Olsen, and Imperioli are playing on a level of moderately stylized reality, the bad guys are in a whole different ballgame all together. At one point Copley strangles Imperioli, who goes crazy bug-eyed, for calling his sister a whore, an insult Copley repeatedly repeats, pronouncing it “whoooore!” It’s scary and funny all rolled up into one strangely compelling moment.

The movie works, but only for the odd combination of its extreme violent tension and the eccentricities of the performances. For a movie so overtly tragic and torturous, it’s often darkly hilarious, almost as funny as the two elderly women who stumbled into the theater 15 minutes in thinking they were in their screening of Philomena. Lee’s filmmaking is always lively controlled chaos. That style permeates his every film, even here. Oldboy is not really concerned with race or class or politics. But it is about lingering traumas emotional and physical, misplaced grudges guiding warped present day futility and twisted schemes of retribution. Which almost makes it about politics after all, doesn’t it? Lee simply takes the raw materials of the subject matter and commits to making it an exercise in style and performance, pushing to the extremes, camera and production design taking on lushly unpredictable and always bold choices. It’s hard not to read a sense of experimental one-upmanship in his re-staging the first film’s famous one-take fight scene with an even longer take, with a more complex camera move, and with more fighters. Near the climax, two characters step into one of the reddest hallways I've ever seen, a visual symbolically hammering home the blood dripping through the story. I think Lee is having fun and, for the most part, I did too. I don't like all of it, having enjoyed it in parts if not the whole, but I'm glad it exists.

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