A tonal collision between live-wire cinematic kinematics and ice-cold debasement animates Park Chan-wook’s alternately madcap and doleful Oldboy, a film that was destined for worship by a particular brand of youthful cineastes who revel in corrosive provocation more than trenchant filmmaking. A meditation on revenge enlivened more by panache than what might be denoted as depth, Chan-wook’s illustrious film nonetheless thrives simply as a cinematic lightning bolt. Its observations about self-propagating violence and soullessness are hardly revisionist or revolutionary, but Chan-wook’s reputation as a guiding light of South Korean cinema rests more on enthusiasm and dynamism than clarity. On that front – and this is not a front to be taken lightly as a font for experiential cinema that aims for the gut – Oldboy, however tenuously it arrives at more substantive ends, does not disappoint.
The effortlessly slantwise film, the second in Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy, concocts a pungent vision of seedy, sour life without the puritanical edge that might have been appended in an American film. The streets of South Korea hustle and bustle with nothing but a percolating lament, which means that Park Daesu’s (Choi Min-sik) fifteen year imprisonment in a single room is very much a tale of shifting cells, rather than being locked up in the first place (the same can be said about his eventual release back into the frying pan of modern life). Quickly indoctrinated into a life of passive acceptance to his fate, the swift and specious freedom he’s afforded upon release is both a blessing and a curse, cornered as he is in a new kind of deadfall rooted not in external detachment from the world but in the partially self-imposed internal cell of revenge as the only possible guiding force he can envision to corner and contain his estrangement from the world around him.
Why he was imprisoned, and the whereabouts of his daughter, are dual albatrosses for him, but they are more passing figments than shackles for a film that is less interested in mystique than in kicking up the dirt of tonal fluctuation. The two kinds of stories one might envision from the material, a baleful, cloudy malevolence and a barn-burning kaleidoscope, respectively, are both present in this film, which mingles tones with a certain appreciable abandon that perhaps evokes the endless fluctuation and discombobulation of admittance to a wider world that doesn’t have a place for you anymore (speaking of which, classism is vaguely within the film’s sights, but don’t expect particular insight).
Still, evident nihilism aside, there’s a gallows spirit to this particular version of modern noir that affects a spirited, even outré quality when the film kinetically, shambolically diverts its attention toward a gruesome, slightly parodic long-take smackdown in a hallway where the choreography is as scrubby and flabby as the characters. Silly isn’t the word, but there’s a willingness to dance in the vicinity of camp here that is both liberating in light of the self-seriousness of the modern thriller as a genre and befitting of many modern South Korean films which deal out tonal curveballs with morbid aplomb (a trend spawned, in part, by Oldboy’s success, even though these films were certainly present in the decade before 2003).
Oldboy, fittingly, avoids grounding itself in the (increasingly turgid) philosophical waste of the modern revenge thriller as well. It plays out, instead, as a swirling vortex of color and twitchy physicality that reveals its wryly sardonic attitude toward its gruesome protagonist. Admittedly, there’s not a lot under the hood, and the film’s excessively off-kilter agitations and formalist ingenuity are more experientially enticing than reflexively revealing. Thankfully (in comparison to Spike Lee’s misguided, politically rapacious remake), the film avoids political or social interpretations and shuns psychology whiskers, reimagining itself as a toybox more than a prism through which to refract society.
So the “hero”, as it were, is more of an amusingly bereft meatbag than a tortured soul, which benefits the film’s flamboyant and pulpy exploitation riff on the revenge story, even if its relentless nihilism is effervescent and ingratiatingly torrid in equal measure. Plus, the eventual conclusion, as is so often the case in films that bank too heavily on the mystery of their narrative, drains rather than legitimizing all that has preceded it. Once the stylistic bravado has washed away, we’re left with a narrative that insists a little too much on its own importance, and a too-literal conclusion to a problem that wasn’t especially worth resolving in the first place.
So, the overcast praise accompanying the film since its release promises a significantly more transgressive effort than the amusingly ghostly film actually delivers (I for one don’t know what it was doing winning the Grand Prix at Cannes (the de facto second place award) when the grotesquely superior Tropical Malady was right around the corner in third). But, on its own merits – as opposed to the ones rested upon it by fanboys posing as cineastes – it’s enough of a bewildering plaything to pass muster.
At first glance, the disarmingly silent Broken Flowers promises significantly less cinematic subterfuge than director Jim Jarmusch’s usually more exploratory works of deconstructive cinematic form. Upon closer inspection, though, there’s a suggestive, suggestible quality to Jarmusch’s diffident screenplay that plays around with notions of causation, linearity, and humanity’s insatiable need to impress a certain logic upon the centrifugal chaos of everyday life.
In Jarmusch’s most approachable film (although, I might add, not an inherently less deceptive film in comparison to his other offerings), a cryptic “you have a son message” from an unknown mother sets once-ladies’-man Don Johnston (Bill Murray) on a laconic, anti-roadtrip for a purpose that is an unsolvable riddle. Ostensibly, he aims to reconnect with any or all of four potential mothers for the child, although the journey is as applicably a haphazard last-ditch effort to will a sort of spirit into a man who is now little more than a pallid, hollow totem on a couch that serves as monument to his lothario-turned-lethargic existence. Beckoned to leave by an animated amateur sleuth of a neighbor, gamely played by Jeffrey Wright in stark contrast to Murray’s diffuse, laconic turn as the center of an inimitably droll film, Johnston drifts about on a tentative trip into the existential void of his past and, potentially, his future.
Which is, perhaps, a great deal more pretentious in concept than in expression, but Jarmusch’s lingering, down-tuned vision of trying to see life anew, only to slip back into preconceptions and social stagnancy, evokes a particularly narcotic form of miasma that remains decidedly on the less-cloying side of miserabilism. Broken Flowers avoids the threat of prefabricated depression via its continually unbalanced tonal fluctuation, folding astringent comedy in with loneliness. Jarmusch’s film isn’t nearly as stylistically challenging or vivacious as his earliest forays into the bedlam of life, nor is it as slitheringly grave and chilly as his later The Limits of Control and Only Lovers Left Alive. But in place of these more studious cinematic playthings lives a breathy, open-ended motion picture, as carefully, surreptitiously inscribed with cavernous, uninhabited space as an Antonioni picture and no less mournful in its vision of people totally unaware of their own loneliness.
Broken Flowers is also, in comparison to some of Jarmusch’s nominally more visionary motion pictures, satisfyingly uncomplicated (or superficially uncomplicated, at least, which, as any good film student knows, usually leaves a greater surfeit of uncluttered space for legitimate emotional complication than any more ostensibly busy motion picture). There’s a dearth of visual commotion on display, a stillness that allows for even the most secretive on-screen gesture to serve as a potential channel into the riddle of human longing for life. Riddles, I say, but pointedly not puzzles; the inciting mystery of Broken Flowers is a mechanism, not a goal. There’s nothing to solve here, no child to find, nor even a soul to discover; as a mood-piece, the languid, droll film rejects obvious event or action, resting instead on subtler, more provisional discoveries about consciousness. Jarmusch’s skill is to morph ostensibly still, placid portraits – stagnant nouns or people – into fluctuating, liquid verbs as initially arbitrary, unmoving angles and seemingly blank stares belie fluid tributaries of vacillating tonal, interpersonal strife. Initially even-keeled sequences become hotboxes of ego and miscommunication. The film thrives on silences which curdle from serenity to absurdity, before, of course, side-winding off in some unknown tangle of a third direction .
Unlike, say, Lost in Translation, likely the most prodigiously awarded Bill-Murray-searches-for-his-soul picture of the modern era (an overplayed but fair sub-genre; Murray invokes unfeeling, laissez-faire internal rot like few actors), Broken Flowers doesn’t rest its claim as easily on broken gender relations. The women that Murray’s character meets are frail souls, but the film carefully evolves from a study in broken ladies who ought to have found a man in Johnston, emerging instead as a question mark about what little warmth Johnston can see in the complicated women he bedded and fled. Women come and go, and Murray’s failed, unsympathetic attempts to find refuge in them, and overcome his insular vision of the world to envision women as more than passive objects left by the wayside, stays the same.