After I finished watching Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy” I was left struggling between my appreciations for the story telling versus my disgust for the twist and conclusion. At first I questioned whether the critics who gushed over this film had lost their moral compass. “Oldboy” in short is a revenge drama. However as I dug deeper I began to appreciate the director’s brilliant vision and concept. You are left confused as to who in essence are the traditional ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’. Chan-Wook blurs the lines and depicts retribution against vengeance rather than good against evil. The end leaves you in a cloudy state of mind. [SPOILER ALERT] Should I be happy that the traditional antagonist is dead? Should I even be rooting for Choi Sin-mik’s character after learning of his past misdeeds? It is this instinct to question one’s own morals after watching the film which makes Chan-wook’s work a masterpiece. Unlike in Hollywood, the director here isn’t spoon-feeding the viewers by clearly illustrating who is the “good guy” and who is the “bad guy” but rather allowing the viewers to decide for themselves. “Oldboy” left me in awe at the brilliant action scenes, perplexed at the ending, and complete shock with the overall extremities of the situations in which characters are placed. These varied emotions lead to a drug-like cinematic high that has been missing with Hollywood films in recent years.
My first complaint with Hollywood is the boring action scenes. There is too much focus on rapid camera work and CGI. Take a look at this stylistically superior fight scene from “Oldboy”.
A single take action sequence involving just hand-to-hand combat with the captivating background music and fixed camera angle. The rawness in the action sequences has been missing in Hollywood until recently seen in the John Wick series. We first need to stress training for our actors so that they can contribute to the action scenes. Filmmakers can then focus more on the action choreography rather than distracting the viewer through cars blowing up, gun spectacles, and holding a CGI exhibition on the screen. Training can lead to confidence and that will lead to believability. Let the actors do the action like we saw in The Matrix or Kill Bill series. Allow them to actually act during the action scenes and show emotion, fatigue, and pain rather than spit out cheesy one-liners to draw up a laugh.
Ultimately it’s the epic ambition that I crave for in American films. Directors here have not been taking risks with their filmmaking or script writing as much as I would like. They make good films but they don’t give the cinematic rush and experience that leave you thinking about a film months after leaving the theater. Last year’s film “Handmaiden”, also directed by Park Chan-wook, creates an entirely new world just with the set designs, camera work, and background music. A film of twists and turns in which the 2nd half of the film is basically a repetition of the 1st half through a viewpoint of a different character. It takes guts to replay scenes to the viewer with just a different perspective but the director has your attention as you are trying to figure out who is betraying, who is the one being betrayed, and who is pulling the strings in the game of deceit and love. Chan-wook does a brilliant job in mixing romance and psychological thrills. Hollywood often has a tendency to create a film and corner it into a specific genre. Frankly, I am not sure in what genre to categorize films such as “Handmaiden” and “Oldboy”. They are just great films that every film buff has to see.
Films here are obsessed with depicting the internal struggles of characters that could seriously lead a viewer into a coma. Show me some ambition and risk taking. Give me complex plots. Introduce me to a whole new world. Put your characters in extreme ends of the spectrum rather than always focusing on realism. It is ok if the main character is a complete dick. We have seen that this can work on television with Tony Soprano and Walter White. Makers should not hesitate to challenge their stars to go out of the box with their roles.
Hollywood has the talent and budgets to attempt to create great cinema but more often than not makers are coming short. There seems to be more emphasis on graphics, A-list cast, and promotion than there is on art and experimentation. I can only hope that Park Chan-wook’s work can inspire American filmmakers to ditch the status quo and strive for more thought provoking content.