Spike Lee's Oldboy

Oldboy vs. Oldboy – Spike Lee’s (red band) Trailer Hits the Web

Spike Lee's Oldboy

Spike Lee’s Oldboy

When it was announced several years ago that Park Chan-wook‘s classic revenge thriller Oldboy was getting the American remake treatment, the number one question on the lips of Asian cinema fans was, “Why?” However as it languished in development hell as directors and actors came and went, it seemed – thankfully – that director Park’s film would remain untouched.

That is until Spike Lee came on board to helm the remake, with Josh Brolin in the role so wonderfully inhabited by Choi Min-sik in the original. The collective sighs and repeated, “Not again,” where almost audible over the internet, while the uninspired poster (see right) did little to assuage fan anxiety.

However, with the release of the red band trailer – which features plenty of violence, gore, and sexual nudity – the film doesn’t appear to be the terrible mess most feared. While it obviously lacks originality and Park Chan-wook’s incredible stylisation, Spike Lee’s version appears to be a well-made and solid effort, with certain sequences appearing more of an homage than as a direct rip-off. Check out the trailer below to see for yourself, and if you have an opinion sound off in the comments section below.

And just for good measure, here’s the trailer for the 2003 original.

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Young-goon works in a radio factory, hearing broadcasts about her cyborg nature

I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (싸이보그지만 괜찮아) – ★★★★☆

I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK (싸이보그지만 괜찮아)

I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (싸이보그지만 괜찮아)

I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (싸이보그지만 괜찮아) is perhaps best described as One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) meets Amelie (2001) due to the whimsical portrayal of romance set within the confines of a mental institution. While these two features may initially seem an unnatural pairing, the abstract representation of the tenderness and innocence of love makes I’m a Cyborg an incredible inventive and poignant addition to the romance genre.

The film also marks a rather remarkable thematic departure for director Park Chan-wook (박찬욱) whose previous works have tended to focus on the nature of violence and revenge, yet his fundamental creative flair and ingenuity portray the magical nature of love of those with an alternative perception of reality.

Cha Young-goon (Im Soo-jeong (임수정) believes herself to be a cyborg, so much so that she attempts to recharge herself at her factory workplace by slitting her wrist and inserting electronic wiring within the wound. Mistaken for a suicide attempt, Young-goon is taken to a mental institution to receive treatment and meets a variety of eclectic and comical characters including Park Il-soon (Jung Ji-hoon/Rain (정지훈/비). Il-soon believes he has the ability to steal personal attributes of his fellow patients, and his perceived lack of identity leads him to wear a rabbit mask before ultimately fading into nothingness. Upon learning of Il-soon’s abilities, Young-goon begs him to steal her ‘sympathy’ so that she can exact revenge on ‘the white coats’ who forcibly took her Grandmother away. Il-soon becomes fascinated with Young-goon and her psychoses, and the two form an unlikely bond that help each other more deeply than any psychiatrist could ever hope for.

Young-goon works in a radio factory, hearing broadcasts about her cyborg nature

Young-goon works in a radio factory, hearing broadcasts about her cyborg nature

I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK is a wonderfully compelling romantic story with incredible visual flair from co-writer/director Park Chan-wook. The composition and colour within each frame is often majestic, such as the greens and reds within the radio factory in which Young-goon is employed that clearly contribute to her belief she’s a cyborg. Contrasted with the stark white within the institution and the ‘dome’ in which patients attempt to verbalise their symptoms, I’m a Cyborg continually conveys whimsy and poignancy in equal measure. This also applies to the character-driven script co-written with Jeong Seo-kyeong (정서경), which foregoes representing mentally ill patients as silly entertainment and instead endeavours to provide each character with history, depth, and empathy. This seemingly rare feature of cinema constructs an environment in which the central protagonists are not conveyed as beyond help, but as members of a social group in which their tragedy and comedy are shared with each other and forges relationships. Young-goon, for example, is from a family with a history of mental illness which included her Grandmother who believed she was a mouse and only ate radishes. When her Grandmother is forcibly sectioned, Young-goon desperately holds on to her memory by wearing her dentures and swearing revenge with her cyborg body. This mixture of empathy and comedy makes I’m a Cyborg one of the most unique, interesting and romantic character studies in many years.

Il-soon hides his identity with a rabbit mask, stealing personal attributes from patients

Il-soon hides his identity with a rabbit mask, stealing personal attributes from patients

At the heart of I’m a Cyborg is the relationships between Young-goon and Il-soon, and the development of their love is represented organically and with passion. Im Soo-jeong is convincing and sympathetic as girl-turned-cyborg Young-goon, conveying her detachment from reality with skill and conviction, and is by far the most engaging protagonist within the film. Similarly Jung Ji-hoon/Rain is charismatic as love interest Il-soon, and while he often does not convey his anti-social behaviour he still functions well as a charming rogue whose interest in Young-goon blossoms with time. The supporting characters also offer interesting interludes that add to the central concept, as Il-soon ‘steals’ personality traits that help bring him closer to Young-goon and provide him with an identity. However, neither leading actor is given a ‘defining moment’ in which their acting prowess can be revealed – such as can be found within One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Girl, Interrupted and Amelie – which ultimately limits their performance and the character depth which is continually alluded to is never fully realised. As such, the gentle narrative flow is never disrupted to a degree whereby drama ensues and hurdles must be overcome, leaving I’m a Cyborg as a pleasantly mellow offering, without much conflict or resolution.

The unlikely duo form a romantic bond that helps overcome their psychoses

The unlikely duo form a romantic bond that helps overcome their psychoses

Verdict:

I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK is a rare and unique treat, portraying mentally ill patients not as figures of ridicule but of poignancy, comedy, and of love. Director Park Chan-wook employs a whimsical and creative style that is engaging and entertaining, emphasizing his ability produce tender and heartfelt romance within the context of fantasy. While the narrative shies away from dramatic character defining events, the gently-paced and thoughtful character construction, accompanied with the surrealism of their perception of reality, is both charming and heartwarming.

★★★★☆

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The dischevelled Dae-su is joined by Mi-do on his quest for revenge

Old Boy (올드보이) – ★★★★★

Old Boy (올드보이)

Old Boy (올드보이)

Old Boy (올드보이) has the double-edged distinction of being most international audience’s first introduction to Korean cinema, and ironically, their only frame of reference. Thus any film viewed after such an inauguration is compared with Park Chan-wook’s (박찬욱) seminal work regardless of genre, which is clearly an injustice to all involved. And yet, it is difficult to completely judge those who make the comparison, as Old Boy  is simply phenomenal.

As the extremely drunk Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik (최민식) is arrested one night in 1988, he little realises that his every action is being watched. Released from the police station and apologising for missing his daughter’s birthday, Dae-su is suddenly snatched from the street and wakes up in an apartment – where he will spend the next fifteen years in captivity. Without warning, Dae-su is released from his incarceration and must discover who imprisoned him, and more importantly, why. He is joined on his quest for revenge by Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong (강혜정), a sushi waitress who takes pity on his plight. In following the trail of clues Dae-su finds his tormentor Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae (유지태) but the burning desire for answers stays his hand. As the mystery unravels, Dae-su is confronted by an awful truth, that will lead to a shocking final confrontation with his nemesis.

Dae-su is incarcerated for 15 years

Dae-su is incarcerated for 15 years

The centerpiece of Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy (preceded by Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것) and followed by Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (친절한 금자씨)Old Boy stands out as one of the most innovative and technically proficient thrillers of all time. If it was ever in doubt before, Old Boy cemented Park Chan-wook’s status as an auteur due to his incredible vision and flair for violent and macabre subject matter. His technical prowess appears effortless. Initially the hand-held documentary-esque drunken antics in a police station add realism as well as Dae-su’s appalling character traits. Yet this is seamlessly sutured with conventions ascribed to fantasy, thriller and action as Dae-su evolves during the course of the film. Shots, such as Dae-su emerging from a suitcase in a field – later revealed as a roof – continually astonish and excite. Tracking shots of action sequences are equally enthralling as Dae-su takes on an entire gang in the narrow confines of a corridor. The level of creative confidence also extends into the mise-en-scene, particularly in regards to colour and patterns. The striking reds hint at the danger to come, while the eerie purples (accompanied by the maze-like pattern formed of triangles) are the calling cards of the mastermind behind the events.

The dischevelled Dae-su is joined by Mi-do on his quest for revenge

The dischevelled Dae-su is joined by Mi-do on his quest for revenge

Praise must also be generously given to the narrative, co-written by Park Chan-wook and Hwang Jo-yoon. The central concept is reminiscent of The Prisoner (1967-68), yet from there the ideas generated are original, shocking and downright bizarre. Yet fundamentally, the emotional core of each protagonist is placed front and center giving exceptional substance to the stylised visuals. Each character is incredibly compelling, neither good nor bad but an amalgamation of a variety of neuroses. In presenting such complex character studies to the screen, all the actors deserve recognition. Chief among them is Choi Min-sik who gives a towering performance as Dae-su. His physical transformation is startling, not only in terms of his musculature but also his tired and dishevelled face that conveys the seriousness of his situation without uttering a word. His erratic behaviour is entrancing and performed with real conviction, from his television style speech patterns, his difficulty in entering the modern world and the frustration of unlocking memories within himself. Similarly Yoo Ji-tae is wonderfully sadistic as the antagonist of the film. Woo-jin’s arrogance and sheer audacity radiates with every movement, yet amazingly is far from villainous due to the incredible depth of character. His own torment, and the unbelievable lengths he goes to in displacing them, are profound and convincing despite the extremities that occur.

Woo-jin torments Dae-su with sadistic delight

Woo-jin torments Dae-su with sadistic delight

Verdict:

Old Boy is a monumental achievement not only for Korean cinema, but also in terms of international recognition. It’s little wonder why audiences use it as the frame of reference in comparing other films from Korea despite the unfairness of such comparisons. The innovative narrative and technical prowess, as well as the exemplary performances, serve to make Old Boy a timeless classic and an absolute must-see.

★★★★★

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Ryu (류) wakes up to find his money, and his kidney, have been stolen

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것) – ★★★★☆

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것)

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것)

Anyone even remotely aware of Korean cinema understands that the theme of revenge is commonplace. There are, of course, a great number of socio-cultural reasons as to why vengeance is prevalent. Historically, Japan has brutally colonised Korea several times over the past few centuries. Following the Second World War, the then-military government oppressed the people until an uprising forced change. Then, after a democratic capitalist government took power, the race to catch up with ‘Western’ countries divided the rich and poor to an even greater degree, with traditional values altered and livelihoods destroyed in order to create infrastructure. The theme of revenge is dominant as it undoubtedly provides catharsis for a nation of people whose identity has been in a constant state of instability due to external factors beyond their control.

Director Park Chan-wook (박찬욱) explores such notions of revenge in his infamous ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ beginning with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것), and followed by Old Boy (올드보이) and  Lady Vengeance (친절한 금자씨) respectively.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is concerned not only with revenge but the very basis and cyclical nature which it evolves into. Ryu (Sin Ha-gyoon (신하균) is deaf and mute, and lives a meager existence working in a factory. His sister (Lim Ji-eun 임지은) suffers from kidney disease and is in urgent need of a transplant. Fired from his job and distressed that his sister may die, Ryu turns to the black market and strikes a deal – he will give all his money and donate his own kidney, and in exchange he will receive a healthy kidney for his sister. Yet, when Ryu wakes up after the operation, he finds his kidney, and his money, have been stolen. Worse still, thanks to a miraculous donation a kidney is now available at the hospital, but without his savings the operation cannot commence.

Ryu (류) wakes up to find his money, and his kidney, have been stolen

Ryu wakes up to find his money, and his kidney, have been stolen

Desperate, Ryu and his anarchist girlfriend Cha Yeong-mi (Bae Doona (배두나) scheme to kidnap the daughter of his former boss Park Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho (송강호) for ransom. With the transplant money secure, the duo plan to release the girl and restore the equilibrium; yet when Ryu’s sister discovers the plot she cannot take the shame and burden, and commits suicide. Ryu and the boss’s daughter bury her body by a riverbank, but the youngster falls into the water and drowns. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance then evolves into two separate narratives of revenge; Ryu’s quest to hunt down the black market organ dealers, and Dong-jin’s desire for vengeance over his dead daughter. Each man has lost someone special, someone who helped to define their identity and give them purpose and subsequently, as each man follows his agenda, their humanity becomes lost amid their barbarous acts of vengeance. Both Ryu and Dong-jin are good men, but are transformed into murderers due to external economic and medical forces, adding sympathy and poignancy as they lose their identity with each act of violence. The evolution of the protagonists are superbly conveyed by Sin Ha-gyoon and Song Kang-ho (송강호), the latter in particular giving a towering performance transforming from emotional businessman to hardened killer. Neither man understands the futility of their vengeance nor that the escalation of violence produces more victims that demand justice.

Dong-jin (박덩진) transforms from father to murderer

Dong-jin transforms from father to murderer

The evolution of the protagonists is masterfully constructed by director Park Chan-wook, who expertly composes each shot to reinforce the sympathy, and the insanity, of their actions. The cinematography is incredible in places, particularly in the recurrence of aerial shots that emphasize the loneliness of the men and the fragility of their humanity. Additionally, the utilisation of space and depth of field highlights their terrible position, both literally and figuratively, in horrific environments and circumstances. Ryu’s world is conveyed effectively and dramatically due to his inability to hear, as alternating POV shots establish how silent and disadvantaged his world is compared to those around him adding yet another layer of compassion to his predicament. Park Chan-wook’s presentation of violence is thoughtful and initially restrained, gradually building tension in order for graphic scenes to have the utmost impact.

Director Park Chan-wook's recurrent use of aerial shots emphasize loneliness and futility

Director Park Chan-wook’s recurrent use of aerial shots emphasize loneliness and futility

Verdict:

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a fascinating exploration into the nature of revenge and violence, highlighting how two seemingly ‘good’ men can evolve into psychotic killers when they are bereaved. However, further exploration of the socio-economic problems that created the black market organ trade and the lay-offs at the factory, could have enhanced the poignancy of their predicaments further, as would have additional characterization before the crises developed. Yet despite this, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a riveting and emotionally charged debate on the escalation and futility of vengeance, and how the loss of a loved one can become poison when the path of revenge is taken.

★★★★☆

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