Disturbing Movie Scenes #20: Old Boy

20. Old Boy: Teeth

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We all have our buttons. Mine are my teeth.

I have quite nice teeth. No, no, come back, I have a point. They are in pretty good condition, all things considered. I have yet to need require major dental work and certainly no braces or fillings as a kid. The odd few times I did need to get a procedure done at the dentist as a youngster it was always something of an ordeal. The sound of plaque being scraped from between your teeth, the sensation of a needle in your mouth, the feeling of gloved hands touching your molars…I was never good at handling it. Like a lot of people, easily the most common nightmare I have involves my teeth falling out in some capacity. Sometimes the dreams are so vivid and horrible that the me in the dream reliably informs me that it isn’t a dream this time. This time, my teeth really have crumbled into dust right in front of…And I’m awake. And late for work.

If you think about it, the concept of baby teeth exploding forth in a bloody clump at any time in your childhood leaving you with loud, angry gaps in your face for weeks as new ones push through your gum like a tiny sentient mountain is kind of horrific. I still remember how it used to feel when a tooth was hanging by a thread and the last tug before the blood began to pour…

Seriously. Teeth are gross.

So what does my frankly alarming ramblings about my psychological demons have to do with a South Korean movie where a guy eats a live octopus? I am sure you have worked it out already but I said I would do this so let’s do it…

But first, some stalling: Old Boy is directed by the awesome Park Chan-wook and is one part of a trilogy themed around the concept of vengeance. I have not seen the American remake, made by Spike Lee a few years back after being stuck in development Hell for years, but the impression I got from the critics was that it was pointless. I can believe that.

I bought the original around the time that I was watching a lot of ‘world cinema’ as part of my University course. For the record, this film wasn’t part of the curriculum. But the DVD was staring up at me with a smirk as if to say: ‘We are pretty pleased with how this film turned out’ So, on a whim, I bought it.

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I don’t want to go on and on about why I love it because it is not that relevant here. But it is a great film and one of my favourites. It is about a man who is imprisoned for 15 years and then released with no explanation. He sets about trying to find out who has imprisoned him and why. It is an awesome mix of crazy action, drama and a good old fashioned mystery noir.

What anchors the film is the incredible direction (I could talk about the scene where Dae-Sue fights a corridor full of guys in one take for the rest of my life and not get bored) and the phenomenal work by actor Min-Sik Choi. I can’t take my eyes off him whenever he is on screen. Luckily for me, he is on screen a lot and man does he chew that scenery when he is not throwing it around. He hurls himself into every moment with a ferocious energy, even scenes when he is quiet or still. Even though he might not seem like a natural choice for an action star he did most of his own stunts and you don’t really question the realism of any of it while you are watching. Unlike when, say, Seagal or Van Damme are beating up guys, Min-Sik Choi makes it look hard. He makes it look painful. And that just makes it that much more cool when he emerges triumphant.

He slides seamlessly from being a drunken idiot to a desperate prisoner to a cold blooded killer…to eating octopodes.

Did I mention he eats an octopus? The actor, a vegetarian Buddhist, ate 4 in total for the scene and said a prayer for each of them. The scene in question, like the whole film, is accompanied by beautiful classical music which would be pretty classy if there wasn’t a squirming sea monster wriggling around in the actor’s open mouth. It was pretty controversial when it was released as despite live squid being a common meal in Korea, generally they are sliced up and not consumed whole. And of course Western audiences were just horrified because…Oh God. The way the still squirming creature tries to grip his arm with its suckers, presumably in a desperate bid for freedom even though he has swallowed most of its head…That was when I first realised this was no ordinary movie.

All in all, there are not 1, not 2, but 3 look away moments for me in Old Boy. Believe me: This doesn’t happen to me a lot. I usually try to brave it out. And now I can. But the first time…The interrogation scene was the one that got me.

And now we have arrived. Trying to get answers from some poor sod, our anti-hero Dae-Sue ties him down and as Vivaldi’s Winter scores the screams, removes his teeth with a hammer. Now to be clear, I don’t mean knocking them out with a hammer. I mean painstakingly taking the pointy bits, getting a tooth in between them, and twisting. The camera refuses to pull away as we see the pressure and the blood building in the gum, as with a pop…another tooth joins its bloodied and beaten buddies on a computer keyboard. Mother of God. Whenever I get tooth ache I hear that sound effect of the tooth cracking. I remember how it felt as a kid. I imagine someone doing that with a hammer. And everything begins to hurt.

The scene is seemingly an homage to the classic ‘Is it safe?’ sequence between Hoffman and Olivier in Marathon Man but the reason why Old Boy makes the list rather than Marathon Man (I considered both as Hoffman’s screams from that film are etched on my brain too) is unlike in Marathon Man, Chan-wook won’t look away even as I do. It is not the pain I fear but the ‘pop’ of the tooth coming out of my head.

I have not been to the dentist since.

Old Boy is a film that will not be ignored.

And I can’t ignore the effect that moment had on my quivering wreck of a brain.

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Tomorrow…A character forgets that the apple never falls far from the tree…#19

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