Friday, 7 November 2008

OldBoy - The Octopus Eating Scene

With the news that Steven Spielberg is to remake the South Korean psychodrama, everyone is wondering whether that movie's most famous scene is about to be reproduced. Would Will Smith ever chow down on a slippery, live cephalopod?

Ah yes. The Octopus. The scene 'has become an iconic image in the minds of many Asian cinema fans,' according to Variety. It's one of the very few shots that didn't feature in the original Japanese Manga on which the film is based. When I called him up to talk about it, Park Chan-Wook revealed the lengths his actor had to go to in the search for the prefect take.

The scene unfolds as follows.

Choi's character has fought his way out of an inexplicable incarceration after fifteen grueling years of mind-games and private torment. He is now at large in the city, in front of a sushi bar where he receives a wallet of money and a mobile phone from a passer-by. He enters the bar, and sits on one of the red-upholstered bar-stools. He's wearing sinister, comedy sunglasses. 'I want to eat something alive', he intones dully to the pretty woman serving as a sushi chef.

He's given a whole octopus on a green plate. The phone rings, and it's a phone call from his tormentor. After hanging up he rips off the head of the octopus and chews on the tentacles, which sucker and writhe around his face and even creep into his nostrils. He faints face-down onto the sushi counter as the tentacles still wriggle from his lips.

'I want to say straight away that most people in Korea don't normally eat octopus of that size,' he tells me. 'But it's true we do eat it when it's still alive'. Park wanted to show the 'hatred' Choi's character felt after that mocking phone-call from his invisible tormentor, but also his desire to 'touch' after not touching a living thing for fifteen years.

'We filmed past midnight in a real Pusan restaurant called Gozen,' says Park. Pusan is a massive harbour overlooking the Sea of Japan. It's famous for its seafood, as well as its film festival.

'The props department had ordered a total of seven octopi from the fish market, via the restaurant's established contacts, and they were kept in the fish-tanks until we needed them' It was only on the seventh take that they got the final shot they wanted 'with the tentacles really moving around in a good way'.

It turns out that each retake was torture for Choi Min-shik. Despite his formidable action presence, he'ss a committed Buddhist. 'Before every take we had to do a prayer to apologize to the octopus for killing it,' recalls Park of that evening.

'It was very hard for him to kill something like that, let alone seven creatures in a row. It took him a long time to recover'.

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