Bold, brutal, bloody and brilliant

Afilm that for many has acted as a gateway to South Korean cinema Old Boy , the second part of Park Chan-wook’s ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ is also his most infamous. Still revered today across all kinds of screen arts, its most famous sequence, a virtuoso single-take hallway fight, has inspired various imitators for well over a decade. But what makes Oldboy special is its consideration of the violence that it portrays – with each blow of the hammer, the film responds: “even though I am no better than a beast, don’t I have the right to live?”

Based on a manga of the same name, Oldboy is the story of Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), the film’s protagonist and victim. He’s introduced as an ordinary white-collar businessman, missing his daughter’s birthday after a night of drinking lands him at the police station. Shortly after being bailed out, he disappears without a trace, imprisoned for 15 years and then suddenly released with no explanation as to why, left with five days to find the answer.

His captivity brings a desire for revenge which turns out to be equal to that of his captor, who is just as violent and spiteful, but infinitely more sadistic. No definitive judgement is cast on whether or not Dae-su is a good man, Chung Chung-hoon’s camerawork observing him with almost impartial remove. As his captor says: “I’m sort of a scholar, and what I study is you”.

And so, we the audience join him in viewing his metamorphosis. This isn’t to say that Oldboy is a cold movie; if anything it’s highly emotive at every turn. A lot of care is put into creating Dae-su, as he changes into a beastly yet captivating agent of vengeance, then into someone who might actually have the hope of becoming a better human being.

The first act follows a fairly conventional revenge thriller template, with exhilarating fight scenes filmed with clarity and grit. But the violence is rarely satisfying. As the film moves into its final act, every bloody action is near unbearable – even though it’s mostly implied – as though it’s too great a horror to be seen. It’s also worth noting that it’s a far funnier film than its reputation would suggest, mixing tragedy and pitch-black humour from the jump.

The chief pleasure and horror of this film lies in Park’s slow twisting of the knife into Dae-su’s side, taking away any kind of temporary satisfaction with each new humiliation – the final turn being the most improbable and deliriously twisted. Fifteen years on, Oldboy has lost none of its capacity to shock and delight.

When he finally leaves his cell, he’s a man on a mission. But he discovers that his unknown opponent is waiting for him: the task of retribution will be more difficult than he thinks. The question, furthermore, becomes not who imprisoned him, but why: what is it in his past that has put him in this position?

Choi’s performance is remarkable: he makes Daesu a figure at once terrifying, and pitiful, magnetically watchable. Yu Ji-tae, as the urbane, controlled nemesis Daesu encounters, quite early in the proceedings, plays a crucial role in maintaining the extremity of the film’s premises.

The acting is world-class in this film. Choi Min-sik and Yu Ji-tae were simply amazing as Oh Daesu and Lee Woo-jin respectively. Credit should also be given to Gang Hye-jung as Mido. The characters are given emotional depth that one could sympathize for. They were not simply categorized as either good or evil but they were allowed to feel raw emotion. The direction was also spectacular from Park Chan-wook. And the soundtrack was mesmerizing.

Old Boy, in its richness and intensity, its weightiness and its lightness, feels like a compendium of movies and mystery stories, fables and case histories, myths and legends, distilled into a single devastating experience.

‘Lola’ gets a move on

An 80-Minute Thrill Ride Based on 20 Minutes

Run Lola Run is a riveting, heart (and pavement) pounding epic choose-your-own-adventure. Written and directed by Tom Tykwer.

Lola gets a phone call from her boyfriend Manni. He left a bag containing 100,000 deutsche marks on the subway, and a bum made away with it. Manni is expected to deliver the money at noon to a gangster. If he fails, he will probably be killed. His desperate plan: Rob a bank. Lola’s desperate plan: Find the money somehow, somewhere, in 20 minutes.

The opening credits spring a digital surprise, as a shot of a crowd turns into an aerial point of view and the crowd spells out the name of the movie. Lola sometimes runs so frantically that mere action cannot convey her energy, and the movie switches to animation. There’s speedup, instant replay, black and white, whatever. And the story of Lola’s 20-minute run is told three times, each time with small differences that affect the outcome and the fate of the characters.

“What a difference a day makes,” the soundtrack croons mischievously, while the destiny of each minor character (shown in rapid-fire flash cuts, a whole lifetime in a matter of seconds) is made utterly different each time. The story eventually replays yet another time, and it takes on new sardonic twists with each new permutation, in a show of creative fireworks that is almost the most remarkable aspect of the film. Saturated with irony, the film moves at a blazing speed to the accompaniment of a relentless techno soundtrack; blink and you’ll probably miss a thrown-in visual gag. Using an innovative mix of animation, still photography, slow motion, and normal cinematography, Twyker illustrates how the smallest change in what a person does can alter the rest of their life

“Run Lola Run” is essentially a film about itself, a closed loop of style. Movies about characters on the run usually involve a linear story (“The Fugitive” comes to mind), but this one is basically about running-and about the way that movie action sequences have a life and logic of their own. What it does, it does cheerfully, with great energy, and very well.

Gangs of Rio de Janeiro

An exhilarating ride through the life of gangsters

The world’s most notorious slum: Rio de Janeiro’s City of God. A place where combat photographers fear to tread, where Police rarely go, and residents are lucky if they live to the age of 20. It shows Rio de Janeiro’s anarchic slums over some 15 years, from the late 1960s to the early ’80s. The main characters are criminals of a most disturbing kind – ranging from 9 to 14 years old, and so lacking in judgment and experience that they’re at least as dangerous as the veteran thugs they imitate.

This movie might better be called “The Gangs of Rio de Janeiro,” because it’s so similar to “Gangs of New York” and “Good Fellas” in theme, plot and expressionistic style that it might have been made by Martin Scorsese under an assumed Portuguese name.

“City of God” churns with furious energy, breathtaking and terrifying, urgently involved with its characters, it announces a director of great gifts and passions: Fernando Meirelles. Movie starts with a gang is holding a picnic for its members when a chicken escapes. Among those chasing it is Rocket(Alexandre Rodrigues), the narrator. He suddenly finds himself between two armed lines: the gang on one side, the cops on the other.

As the camera whirls around him, the background changes and Rocket shrinks from a teenager into a small boy, playing soccer in a housing development outside Rio. To understand his story, he says, we have to go back to the beginning, when he and his friends formed the Tender Trio and began their lives of what some would call crime and others would call survival.

The technique of that shot-the whirling camera, the flashback, the change in colors from the dark brightness of the slum to the dusty sunny browns of the soccer field–alert us to a movie that is visually alive and inventive as few films are.

The cinematographer Cesar Charlone, he uses quick-cutting and a mobile, hand-held camera to tell his story with the haste and detail it deserves. Sometimes those devices can create a film that is merely busy, but “City of God” feels like sight itself, as we look here and then there, with danger or opportunity everywhere.

In its actual level of violence, “City of God” is less extreme than Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” but the two films have certain parallels. In both films, there are really two cities: the city of the employed and secure, who are served by law and municipal services, and the city of the castaways, whose alliances are born of opportunity and desperation. Those who live beneath rarely have their stories told. “City of God” does not exploit or condescend, does not pump up its stories for contrived effect, does not contain silly and reassuring romantic sidebars, but simply looks, with a passionately knowing eye, at what it knows.