japanesedream_72: (Default)
I believe it was Nietzsche who said that what does not kill us makes us stronger. I’m sure everyone can recall at least one negative experience they’ve gone through that’s left them a little tougher, a little wiser, a little more aware or appreciative. But for all the wisdom or strength these events may impart, we don’t always come out of them as well-adjusted individuals. Case in point: “Oldboy” (http://imdb.com/title/tt0364569/).

Dae-su (Min-sik Choi) is a pudgy South Korean businessman who ends up at the police station one rainy night for being drunk & flirting with another man’s girl. Though he already has a wife & young daughter, Dae-su has apparently got something of a roving eye. He causes a bit of a ruckus at the station before his buddy, Joo-hwan (Dae-han Ji), comes to fetch him. Afterward, they stop at a phone booth to call Dae-su’s wife & daughter (it’s the daughter’s birthday). But just as Joo-hwan is about to hand the phone to Dae-su, he finds that his friend has disappeared.

Next, we see a foot unlatching a small door - like a doggie-door with a lock - just above the floor. Dae-su’s head pokes out, & he pleads with this person to explain what he’s doing there, or at least to let him know how much longer he has to stay there, as it’s already been two months. A tray of fried dumplings is placed on the floor & pushed through the door. The foot locks it again & the person walks back down the hall.

Dae-su’s room - or, more aptly, cell - looks like a slightly off-centre (with just a hint of creepy) hotel room; it has a bed, tv, writing desk, & bathroom (sans door), even some art on the walls. But every so often, a music box-like song begins to play, & the room fills with noxious gas. Once Dae-su is knocked out, his clothes are changed, his room is cleaned, & his hair is cut.

This goes on for 15 years.

Over time, Dae-su begins to change. Physically, he grows leaner & stronger, yet appears much older than he probably is. He has little opportunity to do anything but think & watch television, other than engaging in martial arts training (his sparring partner is the outline of a person he’s made on the wall). The tv helps him to keep track of time & the events shaping the outside world (though he must have also watched a host of documentaries, because he later exhibits a “weird wealth of knowledge”, as I wrote in my notes). Sometimes he hallucinates that ants are crawling on him.

One day, he hears on the news that his wife has been found murdered. Witness testimony places him at the scene of the crime, & a family photo album has been stolen from his home. This is more than enough to push Dae-su over the edge on which he has been teetering - & if you’ve ever seen David Lynch’s “Lost Highway”, the freak-out Dae-su has here will remind you of Bill Pullman’s ‘head trauma’, just a bit.

After that, Dae-su’s eyes linger somewhere between extremely tired & more than a little insane. He attempts to dig his way out through the bricks in the wall. He also starts carving lines in the back of his hand (tattooing might be a more apt description) to indicate the number of years he’s been incarcerated, & writing down his thoughts in a notebook, along with the names of all the people he fears he may have wronged who might have wanted to seek vengeance against him. Whoever it is, he vows to escape, & to have his own revenge.

Shortly thereafter, while he’s half-unconscious from the knock-out gas, a woman comes to speak to him. She tells him he is on a plane, & that if he looks down, he will see a lush, grassy field. She rings a small bell, & - in a beautiful overhead shot - we, too, see the field. A trunk is situated there, from which emerges Dae-su, released as inexplicably as he was abducted.

But there is no one he can turn to, & he has nowhere to go. Branded a murderer & now a fugitive from the law, Dae-su tries to adjust to the outside world & to people (especially women) again. For a while, he simply wanders. After some bizarre encounters - a (suicidal?) man with a small dog, a group of thugs who accost him in the street, the mysterious person who hands him a cell phone & a wallet full of money outside a restaurant - Dae-su meets Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang), a sushi chef. She tends to him when he passes out, & they quickly forge a relationship, which ranges, over the course of the film, from him trying to hump her as she’s sitting on the toilet, to a really sweet moment when he helps her dry her hair. During the latter scene, he wonders to himself if she would feel the same way about him had he not gone through his traumatic experience, for he knows - as the audience does - that his imprisonment has made him, in just about every sense, a better man.

Mi-do helps Dae-su gather information: she learns his daughter was sent to live with a family in Sweden, & obtains a map to his wife’s grave. She also joins him in his obsessive quest to find the restaurant that made the dumplings that were his only meals for a decade & a half. By doing this, he hopes to find some clue as to who his captor may have been.

One thing eventually leads to another, & Dae-su does, indeed, learn his enemy’s identity. In the process, he also beats the living tar out of a hallway full of guys, gets tortured & does some torturing (in a moment somewhat reminiscent of a memorable scene from “Bloodsucking Freaks”), & is re-acquainted with Joo-hwan, who lends his talents to Dae-su’s investigation. But by the time his enemy is revealed, said adversary is already one step ahead of Dae-su (&, it appears, always has been), & Mi-do’s life is threatened. Unless Dae-su can figure out, in the next five days, WHY he was imprisoned, Mi-do will die - just as his wife was murdered - along with any other woman Dae-su has ever loved. Much as Dae-su would relish bashing his foe’s head in, he must make a choice: uncover the awful truth & consequently save Mi-do, or have the revenge he has sought, heart & soul, for so very long?

By far, the best thing about “Oldboy” is Min-sik Choi. I was floored to learn that the man in the opening scene at the police station & the one released from 15 years of captivity were portrayed by the same actor. Yes, I mean in the predominantly physical sense, but also in that Choi truly embodies the determined, eccentric, dangerous aspects of Dae-su, in addition to the tender, vulnerable side...& yet he can do 'drunken jerk' quite nicely, as well. The story gets a trifle confusing now & again (this is either down to the way the manga on which it is based plays out or the fact that there are 4 or 5 writers credited for the screenplay), but it’s never boring (especially once the villain, whom I called in my notes “almost operatic”, comes into the picture), & things do make sense in the end - tragic & cruel & brutal as that sense may be (for both viewers & characters). There are some terrific visuals, including a perspective-oriented scene in which Dae-su literally pursues a memory, & a stunning final shot just prior to the credits. I liked the musical score, as well.

This film comes from the same director who gave us the “Cut” segment of “Three...Extremes”, Park Chan Wook. And while one can see shades of the various “Oldboy” themes in that piece, “Oldboy” itself seems to dwell in the twisted shadow of Takashi Miike (including one action, on the part of Dae-su, ripped right out of “Ichi The Killer”), as well as the martial arts films Hong Kong has been putting out for years. I have seen only a handful of Korean pictures, so I’m not sure if movies from that country have truly found their voice yet (consummate though I have found the ones I’ve watched, "Oldboy" included). It may be that they are simply eclipsed by the more well-known genre films of Japan & China. But, from what I’ve been seeing, they are definitely catching up. And fast.

Note: If you’ve already seen “Oldboy”, or are just curious (& don’t mind spoilers), check out this site with regard to the Indian re-make, “Zinda”: http://www.indiaglitz.com/channels/hindi/review/8003.html
(credit must go to [livejournal.com profile] asian_cinema for this)

More stuff I stole from el_jefe59. )
japanesedream_72: (Default)
Often, when I read about a movie in a book or on a website, I think to myself, “That sounds like it might be interesting”, or, “That seems pretty cool, I should check it out.” But rarely, if ever, have I read a synopsis so striking that, sight-unseen (i.e., without having also viewed a clip or photo), I felt an absolute need to see the film. And yet that’s just what happened when I came upon a passage in Kim Newman’s book, “Nightmare Movies: A Critical Guide To Contemporary Horror Films”, regarding “God Told Me To” (http://imdb.com/title/tt0075930/).

The setting is 1970s New York City. While homicide may be an everyday occurrence in the Big Apple, something strange is happening: seemingly normal people are suddenly deciding to go on murderous rampages. A crack-shot sniper (with a gun that, by rights, shouldn’t be able to shoot straight) picks off unsuspecting citizens from his perch on top of a water tower. A husband & father cheerily speaks in grisly detail about how he slaughtered his wife & children. A policeman marching in the St. Patrick’s Day parade (Andy Kaufman!) pulls out his gun & begins firing into the crowd for no apparent reason.

And each of them has the same explanation for doing it: “God told me to.”

The case is put in the hands of Detective Peter Nicholas (Tony LoBianco), a broody Catholic so staunchly attached to his faith that he not only goes to Mass every day, but refuses to get a divorce from his wife, Martha (Sandy Dennis), because the Church doesn’t believe in it (although there are moments, particularly toward the end of the film, when we see that he still cares for her & remains deeply connected to her). Yet he also maintains a relationship with Casey, a modern, women’s lib-ish gal (Deborah Raffin, who played Charles Bronson’s ill-fated paramour in “Death Wish 3”), who may or may not be a psychologist (she comes off a bit like one).

After some rigorous investigating, Peter finds a link - many of the perpetrators were seen in the company of a young, blonde hippie, whose face no one can describe as anything but an indistinct blur. The sniper’s mom identifies the mystery man as Bernard Phillips. But there is no criminal record on file, nor is there much in the way of documented history. So Peter tracks down Phillips’ mother...who promptly attacks him. Why?

Got it in one.

Things get a little freaky after that. Turns out Mrs. Phillips wasn’t ‘Mrs.’ anybody. Hospital records indicate she was a virgin who delivered a pseudo-hermaphroditic child via c-section twenty-odd years earlier. Further inquires lead Peter to a gentleman who found Mrs. Phillips one night those many years ago, on the side of a road in New Jersey, naked & rambling about being abducted by aliens while she was walking near her Massachusetts home.

What does this all mean?

Only one of the most promising & provocative cinematic concepts ever.

Preying on people’s deepest spiritual beliefs, Phillips (Richard Lynch) uses his power to manipulate the human mind, touting himself as a sort of Second Coming so the faithful will commit these ghastly crimes. When Peter finally comes face-to-face with Phillips (in a surreal moment that proves Newman wasn’t just talking about Phillips’ personality when he called him a “luminous hippie”), he does, indeed, find a Christ-like figure, whose lair - & this is a pretty ingenious visual device - more closely resembles one of the outer circles of Hell than anything divine.

Just why, apart from the obvious alien conquest, Phillips is doing all this becomes almost secondary. Like “Shikoku”, the overwhelming potential ramifications of these events are kept to an intimate minimum - specifically, their effect on Peter, whose connection to the case runs far deeper than he ever could have imagined.

“God Told Me To” is an engrossing tale, with some very well-played, emotional scenes, especially those between Peter & his mother (the late Sylvia Sidney), & the moment where the two women in his life meet. The conclusion begins powerfully, though right at the end it leans a little toward the anticipated. This in itself is to be expected, however, as writer-director Larry Cohen’s films have long been known for being more ambitious in their ideas than their executions; ergo, “God Told Me To” is a wee bit jumbled. One gets the sense that the people Phillips exploits are picked at random - I would liked to have had more of an organized-cult-a-la-Manson-Family vibe there. And the group of well-dressed, highly educated, semi-powerful-looking men who serve Phillips, in the belief that he really is something special, don’t appear to have that much in the way of either influence or intimidation.

Still, Cohen always gives us moments that are unforgettable (remember the delivery room scene from “It’s Alive”?), & attempts to make a culturally relevant statement with each project (“The Stuff”, for example, was an often blatant attack on consumerism & advertising), & there are plenty of both in this picture. The opening shot of the city, for instance, at once gritty & breathtaking, is an immediate hook. The underlying theme of religion, its origins, its true nature, & the easy manipulation of faith for either good or evil purposes, is something hotly debated outside the cinematic arena, & only daring filmmakers even try & address such notions. Why more people weren’t up in arms about “God Told Me To” at the time it was made, I couldn’t say. You certainly couldn’t release such a film today, given its suggestion that Jesus is (& I have to use Newman’s words here) “a bisexual psycho from outer space”.

I think Nate Yapp put it best, in his review at classic-horror.com: “’God Told Me To’ was filmed, it exists, & it's damn weird. That simple fact should be enough to get you to see it.” I can only add that you’ll know, once you’ve watched it, that you’ve seen something fairly profound, not only within the context of the story but outside of it, as well...& yet, like the finer details of Phillips’ face, you’ll find you can’t quite describe it.

Stuff I stole from el_jefe59 - we keep getting the same answers. )

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