Top 50 Films of the 00's, Part 10 (1-2)
Oldboy is the rarest of masterpieces. It seems insane that a movie could be this confounding, this satisfying, and this entertaining at the same time. It succeeds equally as tragedy, comedy, horror, action, surrealism. The images that are burned onto my mind's eye forever are too many to list: a man in a gas mask standing over the nude body of a sleeping woman, a man passing out while trying to eat a live octopus, its tentacles squirming from his mouth, a giant ant riding on the subway. I could talk about the string of grotesque, bloody acts that haunt the final act of the film like a Shakespeare play, or the simultaneously hilarious and badass hammer fight, but when it comes to stuff like that, you're better off just watching the film.
What strikes me, going back to it for the dozenth time, is Park's conception of vengeance. I'm not sure if Park was inspired to make his triptych of vengeance films (of which Oldboy is the second) by Tarantino's Kill Bill--it doesn't seem likely, given the timing--but it feels like a response to Tarantino's relatively simplistic approach to the subject. In Park's films, vengeance is never so morally clear, and never very satifying. The protagonist, Oh Dae-Su, is seeking vengeance against his tormentor, Woo-Jin Lee. But Woo-Jin's vengeance against Dae-Su is perhaps more central, especially since his efforts are more successful. But Woo-Jin's vengeance is almost more of an insistence of innocence. (Yes, I'm tiptoeing around the spoilers here.) His insistence on Dae-Su's guilt and responsibilty is a denial of his own. A similar dynamic gets developed even further in the follow-up film, Lady Vengeance, the vines of vengeance growing ever more tangled. For Tarantino, vengeance is justice. For Park, it's a psychological defense mechanism.
1. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001)
Hedwig is easily the most enjoyable rock opera ever filmed. It's as dazzling as The Wall or Tommy, as emotionally resonant as Quadrophenia or The Wall (which, OK, is pretty faint praise), and as fun as Rocky Horror or Rock n Roll High School.
The central metaphor of Hedwig is fracture: the city of Berlin, separated by a wall; two lovers, unable to communicate; the walls that separate all humans from each other (the influence of The Wall is difficult to deny). The fracture is represented by a visual cue that haunts the film like the spirals in Vertigo: a jagged line. It's the fracture between two people, the shape of two people spooning in bed, the lightning bolt that cuts people in two in the song that has become the film's signature track, "The Origin of Love."
"The Origin of Love" is a retelling of a myth by Aristophanes that appears in Plato's Symposium, wherein humans were once made of two people joined back-to-back, and Zeus punished us by cutting them apart. Thus, we spend all our time looking for our other half to complete us. As beautiful and romantic as the image is, it's also a painful expression of human loneliness and isolation, and that's the emotion that Hedwig expresses over and over, in seemingly hundreds of ways throughout its short run time. Illustrated with quirky hand-drawn animation, the sequence is a fantastic melding of the musical and visual, and it's not even my favorite musical number in the movie. In fact, it's not even my second favorite, which would be the punkish "Angry Inch," which concludes with a fight breaking out between band and audience. My favorite? The perfect glam rock number, "Wig in a Box." Maybe the most thrilling moment in any movie I saw in that decade comes at the end of the bridge, when Hedwig breaks the fourth wall to command the audience to sing along, and a bouncing ball appears at the bottom of the screen. And that's the thing, with both Hedwig and (to some extent) Oldboy: how effortlessly they shift from the sad and horrifying to the funny and absurd. I can't think of anything that has made me laugh harder than the image of Hedwig leaving her business card floating in Tommy Gnosis' bathtub after giving him a handjob, or anything sadder than the image of a down-and-out Hedwig singing her songs to an absent Tommy from the Bilgewater's across the street from whatever stadium he's playing.