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April 09, 2008

DVD Journal: "Oldboy"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Back here I watched the primitive 1970s horror picture "The Last House on the Left" and ventured some hunches about why it is that some of today's young and edgy filmmaker-types love the movie. Today, another film that's a favorite of the hot-to-make-movies crowd, a 2003 Korean picture by Park Chan-wook called "Oldboy."


Intense, extreme, and claustrophobic, the film didn’t speak to me, mainly because I found the storytelling uninspired and the tone finesse-free. But I also knew that in reacting that way I was missing the point entirely. I was reacting to the film as though it were a traditional movie, and it's anything but that. Its appeal has nothing to do with traditional movie allure -- with glamor, romance, personality, point of view, warmth, depth, provocation, humor, identification, Hitchcockian suspense, any of that. This simply isn't a traditional movie. Instead, it's an example of what I like to call an audiovisual-through-time media experience.

As such, "Oldboy" is really something. Even I could see that. And I could certainly guess why many kids find it a major turn-on. Here's my hunch: What appeals to the kids is partly the film's skill and dynamism -- but mainly the way it pulls together elements of their media experience into something shaped, paced, exciting, and long-form. Traditional movies inhabit, express, and come out of a world consisting of other movies, of novels, of plays, of songs, and of pictures. "Oldboy" and the kids who love it come out of a different stew altogether. It's all "media" now, baby: videogames, TV ads, websurfing, mashups, cellphones, IMs, flipping through magazines, texting, "tracks" instead of songs ... Zip-zip-zip. Whap-smack-kapow.

Nearly everything in the movie is souped-up, conceptualized, and constructed for maximum impact. Impact, in fact, is what the movie is entirely concerned with. The film doesn't have a story in any normal sense: instead it has something like a videogame's concept. (Roughly: "I, everyman, was plucked out of life, imprisoned, and driven mad for years. Now that I've been released, I'm still being toyed with. What's going on? I have three days to find out, or a pretty girl dies. Now, go!") The film is as free of psychology and emotions as a first-person shooter. What it wants to deliver instead is a back-and-forth between excitement and exhaustion in a physical and nervous sense.

Hey, it's time for a Larger MBlowhard Point: We analogue-era types often bemoan the way popular culture today seems rude, cold, shallow, and crude. I think that part of what we're responding to is the way that emotions and emotionality play zero role in these new-media works. Videogames slap you around; they don't move you. TV ads are groovy and catchy; they aren't involving. In the new-media world, "levels" have nothing to do with psychology and everything to do with unearthing gold rings and zooming off into hyperspace.

The emotional-poetic dimension of life seems to have been pancaked out of existence in today's popular culture, and to have been replaced by an ethos that values nervous-system excitement above all things. It's an effective new world, god knows, even if it does seem literal-minded, abrupt, and lunkheaded. Still ... To draw an analogy to the relations between the sexes: Traditional popular entertainment is courtship; new-media pop culture is what you witness at Roissy's blog.

Anyway: "Oldboy" is certainly very impressive, if in a gruesome and thwacky way. It has all the conceptual cleverness -- and all the exalted rhetorical whooshiness -- of a TV ad, and it sustains that pitch for 90 minutes. Not an easily-performed stunt. Director Park shows how much can be done with wild ideas, with greens and reds, and with crazily-patterned wallpaper. As The Wife said, “Oldboy” is like an exploitation revenge picture for the videogame crowd. So what if it isn't something that I personally look for from movies?

It also struck me as one of those movies that filmbuffs owe it to themselves to watch. Along with such pictures as "Fight Club," the work of Wong Kar-Wai, "The Matrix," "Irreversible," "Run Lola Run," and the Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and Charlie Kaufman movies, it's almost certainly -- IMHO, as always -- a harbinger of where long-form fiction movies are going.

Here's an interview with the film's director. Here's a trailer for the movie.



posted by Michael at April 9, 2008


If "Old Boy" is the movie for the youth raised on frenetic commercials and first person shooters, then what's the media for youth like me who eschewed Doom and Halo to play Japanese RPGs like Final Fantasy and American strategy games like Civilization?

Don't have an answer, really, it's rather rhetorical.

Still, MB, I think you ought to look into a bit of anime. Considering your tastes, I think you'd find "Cowboy Bebop" interesting as a jumping off point.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on April 9, 2008 5:48 PM

So here's the big question I have for Michael -
Your poles in this comparison are "TradMedia" vs. "NewMedia" for which your iconic example is "videogames." So, what exactly are your videogame chops to be able to make proclamations that "[their] appeal has nothing to do with ... glamor, romance, personality, point of view, warmth, depth, provocation, humor, identification..."

I can agree that videogames often concern themselves with "impact" and presentation over substance. But, then again, don't most big budget movies do this also? And are we looking only at big budget videogames, or independent games?
It's my opinion that movies are influencing games more than vice-versa, and that the desire to emulate Hollywood is what drives games to whap-smack-kapow intensity. Ten years ago it was technologically infeasible to recreate a movie inside of a videogame, and stories in games were typically much more developed, even if storytelling technique was less sophisticated. These days, if you are a triple A game, you must have your story unfold as a bombastic summer-action-flick cinematic experience.

Posted by: Cineris on April 9, 2008 7:08 PM

Spike -- I've watched a handful of anime episodes and features, including "Cowboy Bebop," and haven't gotten much out of them. They don't seem to be in my range, for whatever reason, darn it. Anyway, do you see the impact of Final Fantasy and Civilization in any feature films? I'm always eager to learn ...

Cineris -- Spotting the difference between a novels-and-theater-formed set of aesthetic values and a videogames-and-ads set seems about as hard to me as spotting the difference between a Sinatra performance and an Eminem one. What makes you think it requires a lot of expertise?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 9, 2008 11:15 PM


You really have to watch them in order. Jumping into an anime series or recent American animated series in the middle is a recipe for confusion. Even stand alone movies are hard to get without having most of the background characterization and world building already known beforehand. I'm not going to lie, it takes some time investment, and sometimes you can feel a bit gypped. Also, I tend to think the fan community has it wrong. For newbies, it's better to watch certain anime dubbed rather than subbed. If you're busy reading subtitles, the subtlety of the art can slip by quickly.

Heh, I don't see much influence of my gaming type in movies. I do see it starting to swell up in fan writing and comics leaking into the for profit sphere, however. It makes sense. The epic stories and depth of these games better fits into longer forms. It's late, so I can't dig up good examples, maybe later I can provide a couple of stuff I've done. I'm pretty bad, though.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on April 10, 2008 2:55 AM

Spike -- Looking forward to your tips, but I suspect a lot of my lack of response to anime has to do with age. I'm just not the right generation for it. I mean, I find it interesting that young people dig it, and I'm curious enough to do some taste-testing. But it's all in the spirit of an anthropologist, not an enjoyer. Sadly enough, by a certain age personalities and tastes seem to set. You can keep 'em alert and responsive and not totally get locked into them. But you're pretty much stuck with them generally.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 10, 2008 9:20 AM

I'm with you on a lot of the new-media stuff--Park is definitely largely concerned with providing a whooshy, nervy, mind-bending experience--but I found Oldboy to also be pretty emotionally resonant, especially for a movie that is basically a revenge-exploitation flick.

I thought it did a good job of getting down to the marrow of what makes a revenge picture work. It has the feeling of unknowable, pre-ordained tragedy, of helplessness purged by transformation and blood, that you get from oldfashioned etertainments like Oedipus Rex and The Count of Monte Cristo. A quick Googling reminds me that the critic Charles Taylor likened the Oldboy experience to "being plunged into blood, then washed clean in virgin snow." That sounds about right to me.

Plus, despite all the shock effects, the movie has a keen and un-ironic appreciation for life. Like the best revenge stories and tragedies, it uses the violence and the plot twists to heighten our experiences, to force us to realize that despite the lameness of everday existence, life can be a seriously fucked up thing. I don't want to overpraise it in this area too much. But the fact that it's able to stay grounded in such oldfashioned feelings while using its style to careen off into the new-media stratosphere is an accomplishment of some kind, no?

I guess what I'm trying to say is that, despite its new media style, Oldboy is out to provide some rather old-timey feelings. And, mercifully, it provides them in a rather un-ironic way. In this sense its a positive dinosaur. What recent movie can you think of that's pursued the cosmically tragic in such a purposeful and full-flavored way? Oddly enough, the one that springs to my mind first is a very different sort of movie, last year's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Which brings me to another bizarro thought: The person-with-disability movie may be the preeminent revenge-tragedy format of our time.

In any event, I don't see this movie as another 300 (which really *was* all about the whoosh). There's some real blood flowing in the veins of Oldboy.

Posted by: Ron on April 10, 2008 9:27 AM

Steve comments on Oldboy and its connection to the VTech massacre:

Posted by: Thursday on April 10, 2008 12:04 PM

All in all, Park certainly has his own style and tweak this genre into his own. We are rabid fans of him too.

Posted by: 1minutefilmreview on April 10, 2008 12:11 PM

Memory plays tricks. The Lockheed twin fuselage was the P38, and it was a brute that deserved a starring role in the above post.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on April 10, 2008 3:21 PM

Michael, I think we can agree that it is generally pretty obvious that passive artforms like watching a play or a movie are going to work differently from participatory artforms like videogames. That's without even considering the array of forms games take, running the gamut from puzzle games without characters at all to recent Final Fantasy style games that are almost purely movies with only the thinnest veil of actual "game" laid on top.

It's quite a different thing to say they aren't interested in this, that, and the other thing without really having an experience in the matter. It strikes me as like playing a videogame of Garfield The Movie and concluding that movies as an artform aren't interested in deep characters, well developed plotlines, or any of the other things a good 40hr videogame experience can deliver that a 90 minute movie can't hope to encompass. If you were to draw your impression of movies from game adaptations you'd likely feel like they were all insipid experiences you had to grit your teeth to endure, and the reverse situation of game-to-movie adaptations are almost all about hitting every single high point and blowing it up Hollywood style.

Just to give some more concrete examples, Final Fantasy 7 is a game that was told using (by today's standards) primitive graphics and text. Hundreds of thousands or millions of guys who played that game cried when they played it, and experienced real anger and frustration and railed against the cruelty of fate for the things that happen to the characters in that game.
Final Fantasy 7 was also a turning point where Final Fantasy games became increasingly concerned with adopting the tropes of cinema, such that later games like Final Fantasy 10 consist mainly of walking between points where videos will play, using high quality CG graphics to display unique and identifiable characters who are voiced by voice actors. Not surprisingly, the stories in the later games fall flat for most people, even though they're increasingly whiz-bang-kapow in the visual/audio, and even tactile department (controllers these days!).

Posted by: Cineris on April 10, 2008 3:32 PM

"In the new-media world, "levels" have nothing to do with psychology and everything to do with unearthing gold rings and zooming off into hyperspace."

How is this any different from such "new media" as Star Wars and Indiana Jones? Both of which were based on serials from the 30s.

Posted by: lindenen on April 10, 2008 6:43 PM

Just in time for the first anniversary of the VT Massacre......

Posted by: D Flinchum on April 12, 2008 7:46 AM

Very perceptive post. I never thought about it, but, yes, of course, new movies are influenced by video game makers.

Spike: I don't think the artsy people who make movies watch enough of that stuff for it to affect cultural output; wrong cafeteria clique. (One of these days Mike has to post about the newfound importance of high school; did people call themselves 'nerds' and 'jocks' years into adulthood thirty years ago?) I wouldn't mind seeing a nerd auteur make a movie about us, but I don't see it happening any time soon.

Posted by: SFG on April 14, 2008 8:28 AM

Ron -- Yeah, I think "Oldboy" is plenty impressive, and I did get the mythic side of it, it just didn't work in a traditionally emotional-poetic sense for me. Did it really for you? I'm a little baffled when people say they were moved by it, to be honest. By what? The flesh is repellant, the air and light are either fake or processed, the basic situation is a game concept, not a dramatic one, the characters aren't exactly showing off a lot of dimensions ... There's no emotional-sensual way inside that material. I mean, that experience is obviously a fun and exciting one for many people anyway. Cool. But moving in a traditional 3-D "human" way? Really? How does that work? My guess is that some people feel rattled and impressed by the picture, and maybe they also feel something "new" being proferred ... And they decide that that combo (rattled, impressed, "whoa, something new is on the horizon) equals "I was moved." So maybe in some sense they were, I guess. Anyway, I guess I think "Oldboy" is more like "300" than you do, at least in this sense: They're both of and out of the same cellphone-Nike-ad world and mindset, it's just that "Oldboy" is for the edgier kids while "300" is for the frat boys. Fair? Unfair?

Thursday -- Tks, Sailer is great.

1minute -- Excellent, great to hear it.

Cineris -- All good points, and I'm always eager to learn more. But I suspect you're making too much of what I've said. "Casablanca," say, comes out of a very different world (and mindset, and taste-set) than "Irreversible" does. "Casablanca" has links to traditional dramatic and narrative structure, to traditional pleasure and beauty values -- it's an expression and extension of traditional art. "Irreversible" on the other hand is pretty much incomprehensible if you can't see that it's coming out of ads, websurfing, design, cellphones, and games, and speaking their language. Is this good or bad? Beats me, and not mine to judge anyway. Interesting times in any case.

Lindenen -- There's an interesting posting to be done (by someone who knows more about these things than I do) about the similarities between game structure and episodic adventure-serial structure! Anyway, my little contribution would be to observe that dramatic narratives have tended over all human history to organize themselves along Aristotelian lines -- "three act structures," for instance. We've seen in very recent years some filmmakers take a whole different approach towards filling up 100 minutes of narrative screen time, chucking the Aristotelian thing and putting TV-ad style concepts and a general sense of "moving through levels" in its place. It often looks pretty lame to me, and I'm not crazy about it as a development. Trad dramatic structure evolved and grew and developed for thousands of years because it works, and because it delivers traditional experiences -- which is to say "human" experiences -- of satisfaction and pleasure, and why chuck out one of culture's great achivements? But it's not my business to judge, life moves on, etc. And clearly many of today's young people get a big charge out of watching movies that resemble TV ads and videogames not just on the surface but deep in the DNA (on the narrative-structure and on the "what values are being sold here?" level).

SFG - Is high school huge again? That makes some kind of sense, I guess. Email me your thoughts and observations and I'll put it up as a guest posting.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 14, 2008 12:50 PM

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