I'm having the feeling that I may need to review my taste in movies, given that in the past three weeks I've seen two film characters graphically cut out their own tongues. I'm talking Asian cinema here, so dismemberment and tongue slicing seem pretty par for the course. The lesser of the two hostile-to-tastebuds films is a Japanese manga-based flick from a few years back, Ichi the Killer. Didn't much care for it, although the blood-and-guts ultraviolence is pretty indicative of the influences that led to Tarantino's Kill Bill (which I loved -- both parts -- despite my general dislike of Tarantino's self-created persona). While I thought Ichi just dragged between occasional moments of depravity and hilarity -- and those moments are generally distinct from each other, against all likely intentions -- I'll give it this: Even with all the porn I've seen in my life, this was the first time I've seen a film where the title card rises out of a pool of fresh ejaculate. I'm a much bigger fan of director Takashi Miike's earlier dating/second-marriage horror film, Audition, which will justly creep you out.
Anyway, last night I finally had a chance to catch the Korean sensation Oldboy, which got some stellar reviews here in the U.S., including a big rave from Stephen Hunter at the Washington Post. Hunter makes a big deal of the violence, to the point of overplaying it. Yeah, it's not the high-flying wire-fu that's equally overplayed, but it's still not a particularly believable kind of violence, as rooted in realistic brutality as it may be. Watching Oh Dae-Su -- a Kafkaesque antihero who seeks vengeance for being imprisoned in a pseudo-hotel room with no human contact for 15 years for reasons unknown -- fight off a horde of bad guys in a hallway with a claw hammer requires about as much suspension of disbelief as your average Jet Li spin-kick.
The central question of the movie -- who kidnapped Dae-Su and why -- isn't something you can figure out by watching. You'll know when he knows -- and that doesn't make the whole thing any less fantastical, with a convoluted plot that crossed bloody Asian-style cinema vengeance with Hitchcockian psycho-sexual shenanigans (by way of dePalma). Sound like fun? It is, in a twisted way. But while a lot of scenes are powerful and/or disturbing -- a dream/memory sequence that spins into an Escher-esque pursuit, or Dae-Su munching on a live octopus -- everything becomes so absurdly operatic by the end that its difficult to take as seriously as it's obviously meant to be. That said, Min-sik Choi's performance is amazing, particularly when the extent of the plot become horribly clear.
Oh, yeah, and a tongue gets cut out, not to mention a hand and whole bunch of teeth.
But the best movie I saw over the weekend, and probably the best martial arts action flick I've seen in a long time, was Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior, a no-wires flight that regains so much of the intensity that's been lost in the rush to the overly choreographed wire ballets that dominate so much action these days. Tony Jaa plays Ting, a young rural Thai who's charged by his village to travel to Bangkok and recover the head of the Buddha that was stolen from their temple. Skilled in the muay thai martial arts, he ends up fighting what seems to be every gangster and lowlife in the city. Jaa is amazing to watch, with a grace and flexibility that's jaw dropping.
The story itself is light yet uplifting -- although I was wondering to myself if I would have responded with such easy good feelings had it been a film about a young Christian man fighting to return a revered crucifix to his local parish or something. We'll just have to see if Mel Gibson gets around to making that one -- otherwise, I'll just have to keep an eye on my cultural biases. Not that I'm going to rush out and see Left Behind or anything. Anyway, back to my point, which is that if you have even a small liking for martial arts films, you should move Ong-Bak to the top of your Netflix queue. Great action, little blood, and not one tongue is loosed from a mouth. It feels strangely old-fashioned. But I love it anyway. If I gave out stars, it would get them all.