God, what a grim, depressing movie this is. The whole film fairly rolls around in its own darkness. I normally can enjoy dark art, but this film seems so extreme in its bleak vision of humanity that I left the theatre wondering what possible purpose it could serve. Thematically, it's ultimately similar to Memento, showing us how morally compromised we all are, how eager we think we are to learn the lessons of life and, once we've learned them, how desperate we can become to forget; there may be truth in that, but why one would want to consume it is another matter.
The story revolves around a man, Dae Soo, imprisoned in a mysterious room for 15 years for a crime he does not remember, and his attempts to investigate his own past and bring justice to the person who did this to him. "Pyrrhic" is too mild a term for his ultimate "victory," which leaves him as broken a character as I've encountered in cinema. The film is crafted well enough and rich in psychological detail, tho' it does constantly stretch credibility -- it feels like a comic book at times, which is understandable, as it was adapted from a Japanese manga for adult readers (and no, I don't mean hentai manga, though the film is more frank in its depiction of sex -- even taboo sex -- than I'd expected from Korea, since they often censor that sort of thing from foreign releases -- the homemade porn scene from Love, Actually, I'm told, was completely cut from the South Korean release). The film also contains the most disturbing, gut-churning scene that I've seen in a movie; in a way, it's more disturbing, even, than Brakhage's autopsy film, The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes (which at least seems instructive, and which did not involve the filmmaker having to kill any of the people whose bodies he films): Dae Soo stumbles into a sushi bar, shortly after his release, thirsty for revenge and understanding. He tells the chef, a young woman, that he wants to eat something alive. She places a live octopus, apparently real, on his plate. She asks him if he'd like her to cut it up. He picks it up, bites the head (tentacles of the creature wriggling), and then stuffs the rest of it whole into his mouth, the tentacles squirming. I can only hope it was CGI, but I don't think so.
(People know that cruelty to animals is more acceptable in Asian countries, right? I once watched a perfectly ordinary Japanese man use meat shears to cut the legs, one by one, off a live crab, and split them open; he sucked out the meat while the crab sat on the kitchen counter, watching. He offered me some, but I declined... There are also Japanese fish dishes that involve the cutting open, cooking, etc. of live animals -- the more lively they are when they're prepared, the fresher the meat, is the theory. I mean, we have veal and that exploding goose dish to answer for, and the everyday ugliness of factory farm practice, but most people here find these things revolting, and many seek refuge in vegetarianism, while eating live things is pretty much completely culturally acceptable in Japan and vegetarianism is seen as an aberration, even among many Buddhists. I can't say about Korea -- one student did once relate a story about how her pet puppy, which she gave to the neighbors to look after, ended up in their kitchen -- but given how real the octopus looks, I expect the situation is much the same).
Oldboy is the newest major import from South Korea's rapidly developing cinema. It's already a couple of years old, there, and won honours at Cannes (I forget exactly which). I'm hoping Silmido also makes the screens here -- a North vs. South war/action film, I gather, which has been a blockbuster throughout Asia. As interesting as it is to see films of this caliber emerging from Korea, I can't enthusiastically recommend Oldboy -- it's just a bit too grim and I'm not sure it will help better anyone's life. I'm feeling my life needs some bettering lately...