‘Oldboy’ Confounds Critics

OLDBOY Image courtesy of Tartan FilmsOLDBOY opened in Los Angeles and New York with a splash this past Friday.

Kudos to US distributor Tartan Films. Director Park Chanwook’s violent and stylish revenge thriller drew healthy if not outstanding crowds (grossing $61,000 at five theaters) and generated considerable debate.

Rex Reed hanged himself with his racist comments about Korea:

“What else can you expect from a nation weaned on kimchi, a mixture of raw garlic and cabbage buried underground until it rots, dug up from the grave and then served in earthenware pots sold at the Seoul airport as souvenirs?”

Note: To reach Reed’s further observations about “Oriental mumbo-jumbo,” you must scroll down past his bio for Bobby Short, praise for Woody Allen (“Woody’s got his groove back”), and disdain for Rebecca Miller’s THE BALLAD OF JACK & ROSIE.

Not all New York critics reached for racism to express their disappointment with the film. Steve Erickson (writing for Gay City News) says the film “starts out as a story full of possibilities,” but goes downhill quickly, concluding:

“Even if it has finally brought him the attention of Western viewers, it’s a step down for him.”

Los Angeles critics were split.

Carina Chocano of the Los Angeles Times once again demonstrated that she’s in a bit over her head as a film critic (after moving over from writing about television a few months ago):

“It says something when you come out of a film as weird and fantastical as OLDBOY and feel that you’ve experienced something truly authentic. I just don’t know what. I can’t think of anything to compare it to.”

Even when she thinks she’s positive, she doesn’t know why. What’s more revealing about the choice of Chocano to review OLDBOY is that principal critic Kenneth Turan chose instead to enthuse about THE BALLAD OF JACK & ROSIE. So far, Chocano has proven herself adept at churning out one-liners (a habit shared by junior critic Kevin Crust) but lacks the depth to explain herself — at least in the reviews I’ve read.

The acid-tongued Scott Foundas, writing in the LA Weekly, confesses that the “cult following that has sprung up around [director Park] and his films flat-out mystifies me.” He composed his review as a memo to Quentin Tarantino, explaining his choice thusly:

“We all know, of course, that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and your influence can be found all over Oldboy.”

At least Foundas recognizes that “many genuinely talented young filmmakers … have helped to make South Korea a world-cinema hot spot over the last decade.”

Over the years, Andy Klein has demonstrated that he knows his way around Asian cinema. Writing in LA CityBeat, he declares:

“And then there’s Oldboy, about which one can only say … “Wow.”

Regarding the plot, Klein cites various non-Asian films and in general puts his reaction to the film in a more specific context.

Somewhat surprisingly, Bob Strauss of the Daily News didn’t find it “as graphic as I’d expected it would be.” He summarized his reaction:

“It is not a pleasant movie, but it’s close to a great one.”

In Los Angeles OLDBOY is playing exclusively at the Nuart. Due to my increasing reluctance to deal with 60-minute drives crammed with traffic, I’ll have to wait to check it out.

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