Now that we've just watched a very similar Hindi movie, Calcutta Mail, we're reminded just how good Oldboy is, and how we really should get to reviewing it.
Lots of great shots of Calcutta. See the chawl!
The parallels between the two films are eerie, though the plot of Calcutta Mail differs in several key respects (and it's a remake of a Telugu film, Choodalani Vundi, anyway). In both films, we begin in media res, with a tormented, haunted protagonist getting harried by all sorts of goons and bad memories. (Oldboy shows us at least some of what's haunting protagonist Choi Min-Sik - being forcibly imprisoned for 15 years without any apparent justification.) Both protagonists are likable Everymen who are driven by an intense and mysterious desire for revenge (and gosh, they even resemble each other physically!). Both have iconic moments of totally flipped out intensity - the scene in Oldboy when Choi Min-Sik eats a live octopus, or the scene in Calcutta Mail when Anil manages to blow a police officer's desk aside by the sheer force of his screaming. Both films feature a seemingly implausibly bubbly female foil, a perky potential girlfriend who both aids the protagonists and keeps their tenuous morality in check. And, of course, both films are moody, dark thrillers that leave the final mystery's details unsolved until the very, very last moment. Both have some pretty kick-ass fight scenes, though Oldboy's (especially that legendary single tracking shot in a corridor) are generally better. That said, Calcutta Mail is dark, fun and intense. It is a genuinely thrilling thriller.
Without giving too much away - as the mystery of the narrative is one of Calcutta Mail's strongest points - the film begins with our harried hero, Avinash (an exhausted-looking Anil Kapoor), arriving in Calcutta from Bihar. He is searching for one Lakhan Yadav (Sayaji Shinde), and is, by his own account, bahut pareshan ("very troubled"). As he phones shady-looking goondas at mysterious telephone numbers, he arouses the interest of the evil Lakhan himself, who starts trying to kill him. Meanwhile, Avinash finds a room in a chawl (yay! we love chawls!) with the zesty Bulbul (Rani Mukherjee). Bulbul, an aspiring writer, is immediately attracted to this mustachioed Byronic hero spending sleepless, weepy nights on her balcony, and she - by way of two songs (one which is completely inappropriate considering the film's vibe and one which is an adorable fantasy) and some fake drama - weasles her way by Avinash's side. Her support becomes very useful as knife fights, train crashes and Manisha Koirala scenes begin piling the problems up.
The director, Sudhir Mishra, is an expert at building and maintaining tension. He establishes it with brooding "before the storm" moments and punctuates it with excellent editing - for example, there are several scenes where he'll cut away from the drama, just when Anil is to be squished by two oncoming trains, to show us a wide shot of the countryside, or the city. "Argh!" we would scream. "You tease! Show us what happened!" And he always does - don't worry. His camerawork provides excellent pacing - shaky, disorienting fight scenes, sweeping mob scenes, and quieter stuff for intimate moments. The palette - if our crappy VCD can be trusted - is muted and filled with shadow. He makes everything - even the expected comfort of a homey middle-class chawl - look hostile and threatening.
Black and white flashbacks, shaky cameras, scary!
Some things to note, for those that have watched the film:
- Isn't Ishu the Hindi name for Jesus? If so, that's interesting.
- Is it just us and our Shashi-shaped glasses, but to what film is Anil referring when he does his Shashi-impression? ("Jahan baaaaap hai to kya baaaaat hai?") It's totally intentional. Aa Gale Lag Jaa?