Oldboy meets Kill Bill
By Michael Joshua Rowin
Sometimes films, whether by coincidence or by design, are joined at the hip, engaging in a dialogue and illuminating one another. Case in point—you can’t be amazed by Oldboy without considering its Hollywood counterpart, Kill Bill. At least I couldn’t. Big bloody epics with narratives fuelled by their protagonists’ insatiable desire to exact revenge, both Oldboy and Kill Bill are also unabashed products of postmodern aesthetic heterogeneity and excess, with gory humor, throwaway references, nonlinear storytelling, and brutal violence colliding in each instant and every frame. Of course, this comparison wouldn’t mean much if it didn’t represent something larger. As popular American cinema slowly reaches a cul-de-sac in providing progressive cultural statements, Oldboy shows South Korean cinema gaining not only an international popularity and critical appreciation never before received but outpacing the American genres it usually reflects back through its own unique funhouse mirrors of irreverence and sheer creative energy.
Ironically, with both volumes of Kill Bill Quentin Tarantino clearly attempted to turn this same trick, taking Hong Kong Kung-Fu and Japanese Samurai leftovers and chucking them in the same blender as John Ford, De Palma, and, well, Tarantino himself. The result should have been something singular in popular American cinema: kinetic and beautiful; silly and serious; entertaining and challenging; a product of the Miramax-Hollywood machine yet existing within consumer culture as an auteurist anomaly; a splatterfest agreed upon as essential by film-geek partisans on one side and your kid cousin on the other. Indeed, there are moments in Kill Bill that damn near follow through on these expectations, most notably the House of Blue Leaves sequence, in which QT achieves a cinema of pure exhilarating carnage. But after wandering out of Vol. 2 finally knowing what was actually at stake in Kill Bill, I had to stop myself—was this it? A saga that takes the pulp out of the fiction and replaces it with a half-understanding of identity and the corrosive effects of unrepentant violence and vengeance upon it? No, Tarantino isn’t responsible for the numb acceptance of violence in American society, but are we really supposed to buy Kill Bill’s climax, featuring The Bride vacantly lying in bed with her rescued child while watching Shogun Assassin? Yeah, I get the joke, but it’s unfunny (erring on the side of painful showiness), and it betrays the thin hints of moral ambiguity with which Tarantino might have chosen to explore in his heroine.
Lacking the ethical tension that gives cultural shelf-life to classic, violent films of retribution (The Searchers, The Godfather I & II, and, yes, Pulp Fiction), Kill Bill, I surmise, has passed through our collective memory like so many swords in the air—or, at the very least, epitomized for future generations the limits of “acceptable” escapism in an era when the media refused to broadcast the most gruesome images from the Iraq War. Because, finally, Kill Bill, a potpourri of genres specializing in revenge and its consequences, dodges the contradictions and complexities about said topic. Many of my comrades rolled their eyes when I complained about Kill Bill Vol. 1’s glaring lack of substance. With Kill Bill Vol. 2’s wince-inducing attempts at “expanding” character and theme, I wasn’t saying “I told you so” as much as trying to salvage any signs of life along with other disappointed fans.
Enter Oldboy as herald of a new type of popular violent revenge flick. As a juror at Cannes 2004 Tarantino loved Oldboy; but did he see it as a comparatively humble corrective to his bloated exercise in indulgence? Looking back on it, I may have been a tad hasty in deeming Oldboy a “masterpiece” in my short indieWIRE review a number of months ago. Nonetheless, the film immediately positions itself as an entirely different monster from director Park Chan-wook’s previous features, even while working as an amalgam of each. The “perfect” glossy look of Joint Security Area is the aesthetic vehicle that carries on the explorations of vengeance and its moral corrosiveness initiated in the more experimental Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.
The polished Fincher-esque digital malleability from JSA returns in Oldboy, a simultaneously disappointing and enthralling aesthetic approach to the content. One can’t help but recall the flashback structure and breakneck-speed exposition of Fight Club’s opening and the anarchy-via-MTV the film goes on to peddle. The irony is, if you accept Fincher’s macho pop spectacle as gospel, Oldboy will eventually either pleasantly or unpleasantly surprise you. Both films share a surface grime (a nasty blue-green washes 90% of Oldboy so severely that just looking at the screen feels dirty), but beyond that it’s clear that Park is infinitely more daring and inventive. Whereas Fight Club’s fluorescent, heroin-chic photography undermines any political intentions, Oldboy’s equivalent sound/image sensorium (right down to its overbearing techno-symphonic soundtrack) taps into the universal vein of tragedy that fervently unfolds in the narrative. Sympathy comes from a grand tradition of cinematic modernism with a capital C—its fragmented, elliptical, and disorienting aesthetic allows it an intimacy that makes it a film “about” South Korea and the class divisions existing therein. Oldboy’s postmodern, epic qualities make it a film “about” human nature, and about the status of the individual in a global contemporary landscape of desublimated rage and unchecked surveillance.
Needless to say, what separates Oldboy from Fight Club also separates it from Kill Bill: the tranquilized acceptance implied by Tarantino’s multiplex-ready brand of gore, and embossed in Robert Richardson’s gorgeous, eye-popping cinematography, is nowhere to be found in Oldboy. Representing different veins of daring Hollywood cinema, Fight Club and Kill Bill disappoint in different ways, the former selling rebellion to the self-satisfied and the latter providing an art for art’s sake pastiche that should, by this point in film history, be handled with care. Oldboy distances itself from Kill Bill by presenting a form of cinematic heterogeneity that produces meaning alongside playfulness. For example: the tour-de-force sequence in which Dae-su, on the war-path and piecing together the clues of his captor/tormentor’s identity, takes on a dozen or more henchmen within a long, dark corridor. Park presents the action in an unbroken, three minute tracking shot that circumvents the omniscient/transparent editing of the earlier fight scene in order to call attention to the graceless lurching and flailing of street violence. Not quite an alienation effect but certainly not a typical representation of violence, the sequence is nonetheless breathtaking in its disdain for the balanced choreography that traditionally makes for such absorbing spectacle. And while it’s not exactly a “moral” artistic choice on the part of Park, it’s a seminal vestige from the heterogeneous strategies of Sympathy, an aesthetic violation suggesting the looming moral and ethical violation waiting in the wings. This shot certainly draws parallels to the virtuoso, sinuous tracking shot winding its way through the House of Blue Leaves segment of Kill Bill. Tarantino uses the smooth gliding shot through the various threads of action in order to pique the viewer’s sense of omniscience, a tension-building warm up to the choreographed carnage that immediately follows.
The problem with the final violation Oldboy has in store for its audience is that so many viewers have (understandably) ignored its moral implications in favor of its aesthetic and narrative fireworks. Thus, the popularity of Oldboy has risen in inverse proportion to a proper appreciation for its pulp examination of guilt and choice. Blame the Tarantino/Kill Bill factor, or perhaps the stigma of stylized, gratuitous violence often attached to Asian cinema, an unfair, culturally condescending generalization: any film now openly displaying a fondness for blood, guts, and over-the-top stylistics must be dismissed as substantially empty. No wonder the stodgy, conservative old guard of film critics—Rex Reed, Anthony Lane, and Armond White—conflate Oldboy’s depiction of violence with a blind celebration of the same. Didn’t we learn in high school that it’s not what a work of art is about but what it says that’s important? Since Oldboy concerns itself with the universal even more so than Sympathy, its references to Sophocles connect it to a despair over the unconscious, incautious drive toward power and selfish fulfillment that repeatedly define mankind’s failings. As Park has himself stated: “The vengeances represented in my movies are not actual vengeances. They are merely the transferring of a guilty conscience. My films are stories of people who place the blame for their actions on others because they refuse to take on the blame themselves. Therefore, rather than movies purporting to be of revenge, it would be more accurate to see my films as ones stressing morality, with guilty consciences as the core subject matter.”
Like Oedipus, Dae-su is given only one real choice—that of knowing or remaining in ignorance of his sin. It’s to Dae-su’s credit that he chooses to discover the reason for his captor’s undying grudge against him rather than end things with a swift death blow. What he discovers is not only the reason, but his own guilt. In a stunning washed-out flashback sequence we learn of Dae-su’s transgression that set off the chain of revenge: back in Oldboy Catholic school young, cocky Dae-su spied Woo-jin and his beautiful sister engaged in an incestuous encounter, which Dae-su soon after reports to a friend, starting a rumor that might have led to the sister’s death. The effect of this flashback comes from its implication of the spectator’s desire to know—we view the illicit coupling through young Dae-su’s point-of-view, in another long take that, in its transgressive intimacy, feels nearly interminable. Like the famous implicating POV shots in later Hitchcock, Park confronts us with our own desire to solve the mystery (impelling the narrative and our absorption in its unfolding) and our contradictory fascination/revulsion with the revelation. The peeled-back layers, in retrospect, seem just as tainted. When Dae-su’s eyes, peering through a classroom window, stare back from Woo-jin’s sister’s mirror in the cutaway shot, triangular voyeurism disrupts the relatively safe vicariousness with which the spectator might have positioned himself.
In contrast, Kill Bill never transcends its own safe remove. There’s never a sense that the slick universe shaped by multiple film stocks, anime, and genre hybrids will be introduced, as in Oldboy, to a profound moral conundrum. When Hattori Hanzo tells the Bride, “Philosophically, I’m sympathetic to your aim” upon giving her one of his handcrafted swords he grants carte blanche to both director and audience to avoid any screwdriver-in-the-cogs complication that could stall the film’s beautiful, well-oiled thrill machine. Tarantino once predicated his films on idiosyncratic dialogue that revealed the humorous hesitations of killers and thieves. All he has to offer in Kill Bill—aside from a blink-and-miss-it acknowledgement of the ongoing cycle of revenge that will be taken up by one of The Bride’s victim’s children—is Bill’s soliloquy, referencing the legend of Superman, postulating the unchangeable killer instinct of The Bride and the dubious possibility of her adaptability to society and motherhood. When The Bride proves him wrong, her choice to start a new life with her child isn’t so much validated as her status as comic book superhero is cemented. Heck, she even has superpowers (Five-Point-Palm Exploding Heart Technique) with which to vanquish a personal archnemesis.
Whereas Kill Bill’s conclusion is outright evasive (not even its defenders have been eager to offer reconsideration), Oldboy ascends to the heights of tragedy. Even though Dae-su chooses, he still doesn’t think, at least not about living—everything takes a backseat to vengeance. When Mr. Park tells him, right before a bout of dental torture, “They say people are cowards because they have an imagination—don’t imagine,” the line mimics Dae-su’s proclamation later on “I don’t imagine the future.” Armond White’s cry of indignation over the former line, a sure sign of cinema’s creative decline, ludicrously misses the point. Park paints a portrait of a hi-tech, lo-caution society in which a lack of imagination has resulted in the zero-sum violence represented onscreen. Dae-su’s initial sensorial exuberance upon release from imprisonment (running his hands over a man’s face; cowering in an elevator in the presence of a woman) is quickly replaced, once given money and a cell phone, with an interminable urge for retribution. Oedipus gets played by the gods; Dae-su gets played by a mogul with unlimited technological resources for surveillance. Dae-su is “TV Man,” his 15 years as kidnap victim making the boob tube a clock and calendar, his school, home, church, friend, and lover.
Sadly, there’s not a single moment in Kill Bill that matches this level of reflection. The Bride is a Frankenstein that ends up defeating its master, an old standby for tight and tidy moral absolutes. This wouldn’t be disappointing except for the fact that if films are allegories expressing the fears, desires, and self-image of a society, Kill Bill is the sleekest, sexiest, and coolest relic of the empty revenge flicks traditionally dismissed as products of simpler, more brute periods. Of course, we live in a more complex reality—one in which opposed ideologies create grey zones of responsibility from avenging battles of attrition—and scrupulous filmmakers and scrupulous films need to represent it. As a nearly abstract fable, Oldboy burrows its undiluted paranoia deep into the consciousness as a timeless tragedy for the cyber age. Meanwhile, the contemporary moral vacuum it reflects seems timeless only because we’ve never lived outside it. Like Dae-su, we escape one form of incarceration just to end up in the larger one that is the world.