Let’s get this out of the way first: to quote the MIFF catalogue, Park Chan-Wook’s Old Boy contains scenes which may offend some viewers. Which is to say, lead actor Choi Min-shik eats a live octopus. (Don’t blame me, I’m a vegetarian.) Now we’re not talking about a delicate gulp-and-swallow deal here; that sucker is about the size of a kitten, and he pretty much chomps it down.
I could explain that it’s actually vital to the plot, as it shows the depth of his character Dae-su’s all-consuming need for revenge on the person(s) unknown who incarcerated him, not to mention his craving for something fresh after a decade and a half of jailfood fried dumplings. I could also explain that the scene demonstrates the incredible rapport between actor and director, because no way else would Choi have agreed to shuck down tentacles au naturel, live and squirming. (Four times, in fact, before Park had a good take.)
But whichever way you look at it, the cephalopod gets it. And if that offends you, then that’s a shame, as you’ll be missing the most invigorating and inventive film of the year. If it’s good enough to win the Cannes Grand Prix, then it’s good enough for you. (But heck, it’s France; maybe they all hate octopi over there.)
The film’s sheer fluidity is dazzling. It’s edited to perfection to convey the madness of solitude and the wider prison of the world, with a killer score and to-die-for sequences; standouts include an extended one-take brawl with a dozen men verus Dae-su and his trusty claw hammer, and a memory chase scene where the madman pursues a younger version of himself. As a story about secrets, it does not merely reward rewatching, it practically demands it. Park is a self-confessed film-maker for the DVD generation.
Lead actor Choi Min-shik is astonishing as the certifiably batshit but undeniably focused Dae-su. He gives the performance of several careers, at once dangerous, distraught, detached, depressed and demonic. Disbelief is easy to suspend: just looking at him, there is no doubt in any frame of the film that he was locked up for over a decade. The film’s nemesis is played by frequent romance actor Yu Ji-tae with debonair malevolence.
All I can say in closing is, if I was Park Chan-Wook’s neighbour, I sure wouldn’t be mowing my lawn before noon on weekends. He is the master of vengeance, and this film will mess you up proper. Especially if you have eight legs and look mighty tasty.