Feast for the Eyes: An Octopus Reverie in Oldboy

Food is a rich cultural signifier and storytelling device, both ripe for fetishization and so familiar that we often overlook its cinematic affect. Feast for the Eyes charts the gastronomic iconography of the screen, move forward from simple fantasies of edibility, and ponder instead the depths of narrative, character and theme that a simple pastry can encode between its buttery layers. From Chocolat to Chef, from Tarantino to Miyazaki, from The Trip to, well, The Trip to Italy… you’ll never watch a dinner table scene in the same way again. [As always, this post contains spoilers.]

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“I said I want to eat something alive.”

So begins perhaps the most visceral, hypnotic, and just plain bananas moment in the history of onscreen consumption. As famous as the octopus scene in Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy is, hype cannot prepare a viewer for watching the recently freed Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) walk into a sushi restaurant, order a live octopus, grab the animal with bare hands, rip off its head with his teeth, and down the struggling creature in one horrific go. The sequence is a feat of actorly commitment verging on the life-threatening, a dazzling union of plot, theme, and perverse imagination, and a showcase of the virtuoso cinematic styling that won Park the 2004 Cannes Grand Jury Prize. It’s one of those things you can’t quite believe actually happened. No wonder Spike Lee steered clear of the entire endeavor in his 2013 remake.

Oldboy Sushi Wide Shot

Composed of Park and DP Chung Chung-hoon’s scintillating, lavish visuals, this is one of the most surreal, almost Lynchian sequences in the whole film: Dae-su’s bedraggled barbarism (shock of dirty hair, unkempt tramp suit, dead stare) colliding with the quiet civility of the sushi restaurant—sashimi and ice glistening in a case, dark greens and reds in the walls and curtains, kimonoed waitresses gracefully carrying trays of tea to diners in office clothes, long knives sliding into thin slabs of fish.

Oldboy Fish Slicing

The camera tracks slowly away from, and then back into, Dae-su as he sits at the bar, talking to a lovely young sushi chef named Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong). Mi-do is angelically pretty and framed in disorientingly canted close-ups, which feel as intimate as the frisson of unexpected familiarity jolting through both parties at once. She’s a vision from some kind of drunken reverie; like Dae-su, we get the feeling that we, too, know her from somewhere.

Oldboy Mi-do Eavesdrops

When Dae-su receives a phone call from his unknown tormentor, Mi-do eavesdrops. After he hangs up, even her small talk has an absurd poetry to it (“I must be a rare breed of woman. I have very cold hands.”) She watches him eat with a wry, amused, complicit fascination. A slow tilt downwards to their hands as she reaches for Dae-su over the counter. The operatic score crescendos, and her electric touch throws him into a stupor. A persistent sense of irrationality, the clammy tactility of this setting with its mysteriously friendly, cold-blooded angel, sets us up for the nightmare quality of Dae-su’s meal.

Oldboy Dae-su slumps

Now, about that meal. Dae-su wants to eat something alive, and, on one level, it’s sort of understandable. Maybe sheer impatience drives him to skip the careful slicing Mi-do would normally perform on the octopus; after 15 years of consuming nothing but fried dumplings (not only nuked in oil, but delivered from Violet Blue Moon, a restaurant that isn’t even close by), it’s no wonder he craves something fresh. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review, “When he says in a restaurant, ‘I want to eat something that is alive,’ we understand (a) that living seafood is indeed consumed as a delicacy in Asia, and (b) he wants to eat the life, not the food, because he has been buried in death for 15 years.”

Still, what Dae-su does is pretty weird even for Asia. The traditional way of eating live octopus in Korean cuisine is called Sannajki, whereby the octopus is sliced into manageable chunks (as Mi-do offers to do for Dae-su) and doused with sesame oil for the benefit of Koreans and tourists looking to play with their food. Even in this more conventional form, the dish not for the faint of heart—the pieces wriggle with alarming animation on the plate, and sometimes causes injury to the eater, suction cups being known to stick to throats and choke the unprepared. Small octopi are also sometimes eaten whole, but wrapped around chopsticks like a viscous, knotty lollypop. They are never tucked into willy-nilly as Dae-su does, and are never as big as his particular creature. (Sannajki is not without its own cultural mythology. As this National Geographic video mentions, eating live octopus has a reputation of being strengthening—kendo fighters, in a show of male bonding, cheer each other on as they slurp octopus down—and, incidentally, octopus head is reportedly thought to be an aphrodisiac, which might make some sense in the light of later events in Oldboy.)

New Picture (34)

The scene, as you’d imagine, wasn’t a walk in the park to film, as documented in this behind-the-scenes clip. Choi Min-sik, a Buddhist, said a prayer for each of the four creatures he had to rip apart before they’d got the shot (“I am sorry. I am sorry”). Though he had to put liberal amounts of salt on the octopi, he succeeded in downing them with a deadpan, deliberate gravity—and with tentacles pushing their way up his nostrils, that’s quite an accomplishment. It’s riveting; as astounding a physical performance as Choi gives in any of the film’s bloodier pyrotechnics.

New Picture (39)

Park, never one to shy away from audacious thematic references, has spoken of the Oedipal symbolism of his film, most evident in the sounds of the name “Oh Dae-su.” Another Greek myth that Oldboy—with its orally fixated motifs of teeth and tongue—brings to mind is Philomela: the tragic princess whose myth involves rape by the hands of her brother-in-law, Tereus, who cuts out her tongue to prevent her from speaking of his crime.

Tereus is later forced by his vengeful wife to unwittingly eat his own son. Throughout the film, Dae-su threatens repeatedly (and quite bizarrely) to eat his tormentor. Cannibalism—like incest—is a distorted channeling of the “natural” heterogeneous impulse to eat something other, to have sex with something other. This turning back unto oneself is the underlying movement of Park’s narrative. “I’m sort of a scholar,” says Dae-su’s unnamed captor on the phone in this scene, “and my field of study is you.” It would be as accurate to say that his field of study is himself, obsessed as he is with making Dae-su a mirror image of himself.

New Picture (35)

Anyway, it’s hard not to see a sympathy between the octopus, squirming on its plate, and its diner, squirming in atavistic confusion, with only a dim awareness of being toyed with by a higher power. During the actual eating shots (long and gratuitous enough to be incontrovertibly real), the octopus’ tentacles (translucent, slimy and horribly long) protest by twisting at odd angles in Dae-su’s grip, suction cups valiantly latching on to his nose and wrist. It’s grotesque; both comical and horrific. Dae-su is a beast himself: As he rips the head off with sickening elasticity, leaving a waterfall of tentacles sprouting from his mouth, he’s a monster, emerged from some mythic darkness.

It’s no less a fight to the death than all the others in this violent fairytale, and Dae-su’s conquering of the poor animal is a statement to his unknown tormentor that he means business (that he is—as they say—a live one). But it’s a misdirected enactment of revenge on a helpless creature, one that makes him no better than his doomed meal. The scene’s final birds-eye shot is the camera—in the guise of Dae-su’s all-seeing captor—rising up and away from his victim, now just a head on a platter. MM

New Picture (43)

Previous Feast for the Eyes installments:

Inglourious Basterds

Land Ho!

Waitress

Annie Hall

Howl’s Moving Castle

Screenshots taken by MovieMaker Magazine.

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