Welly, welly, well. Listen up, droogs, while Judge Joel Pearce helps you make up your rassodocks about whether or not to viddy a little of the old ultra-violence... Korean-style.
15 years of imprisonment…5 days of vengeance.
Those of us who have been watching Korean films from the past few years have been wondering what film would really burst into the North American market and turn some heads. Oldboy could well be that movie. It has all the makings of a surprise hit: A tough, unique style, a compelling story, and some of the edgiest twists in the history of film. If you have the stomach for it, don't let this one pass you by.
Facts of the Case
After spending his daughter's birthday drunk in a police station, Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi, Taegukgi) disappears from the street, only to find himself locked alone in a hotel room. He is left there for fifteen years, with no explanation and only a television to keep him company. After his first few years of despair, he finds a few ways to keep himself occupied. He trains himself in martial arts, pounding on the wall until his hands are covered in calluses. He also starts to keep a diary, documenting all of the horrible things he has done in the past, creating a list of people who would have a reason to imprison him this way. If he ever gets out, he promises himself that he will figure out who locked him up and why. Then, he will have his revenge.
When he is suddenly released 15 years later, he receives a phone call from his mysterious antagonist. He has only five days to discover the truth before he will be trapped wondering forever who punished him and why. With the help of Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang, Nabi), a young woman he meets in a sushi bar, Dae-su Oh starts to work his way up the underworld food chain to discover the truth.
For the uninitiated, Oldboy is the second in Chan-wook Park's JSA vengeance trilogy, which began with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and concludes with the recently released (in Korea) Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. In this case, there isn't much philosophizing about what happens when an-eye-for-an-eye gets carried too far. Oldboy is a study of a destroyed life rising from the ashes, and the journey that Dae-su Oh embarks on isn't unlike the Marv segment of Sin City. He's not the brightest guy around, but after 15 years of pain, he's out for blood and willing to sacrifice anything to get it. At least, at first he is…
I don't want to spoil any of the twists and turns that come after Dae-su Oh is released. He goes through much pain and horror during his transformation into a monster of vengeance, and the extent of what Chan-wook Park is willing to make the character endure is one of the principal joys of watching Oldboy. I know that sounds a bit macabre. If you think I sound cruel, you had best stay away from this film. After about an hour of hammer-beaten thugs, raw squid dinners, and psychological manipulation, even the toughest viewers will feel a little shell-shocked. And yet, every minute of Oldboy is supremely entertaining. We are gradually fed enough information that we get to care about the answers that Dae-su Oh seeks, and we have witnessed so much of his pain that we want to see him get his revenge as well.
Min-sik Choi's perfect performance is one of the main reasons that Oldboy works as well as it does. His transformation is startling, both emotionally and physically. He begins as a drunk, pathetic but likable loser, falls into insanity and despair, then rallies to become a vicious animal born of pain. His humanity gradually returns thanks to Mi-do, but it's hard to get past 15 years of solitude in a few days (or so I imagine). This transformation is clear but subtle, magically happening right before our eyes. He carries the audience through his experiences, and we are with him every step of the way. This is one of the most impressive performances I have ever seen, and the subtleties of it show even more in subsequent viewings. The other performances are also great, with wonderful work from Hye-jeong Kang and the thoroughly creepy Ji-tae Yu.
I also have to applaud Chan-wook Park's incredible direction. Oldboy is mind-bogglingly cool, as every scene threatens to rip through the screen and invade your living room. It has a completely unique look and feel, equal parts beautiful and grotesque. Every scene has been carefully designed, every shot fits the film in terms of composition and style. The violence is vivid and unsettling, fresh enough to resensitize us to the viciousness that the characters display. I've seen lots of revenge movies, but I've never seen anything quite like this before.
Which leads us to the only potential problem with Oldboy. It has garnered so much attention on the international film festival circuit and through word of mouth that the expectations could be too high for a lot of viewers. There really isn't any social commentary or point to this movie that I can see. Dae-su Oh's resocialization after 15 years of sitting in front of the television is interesting, but it isn't really explored that much. The escalating revenge theme has been done to death, and fortunately that's not really the point here either. The pleasure derived from Oldboy is of the same variety as that derived from a great horror film. We are glued to the screen, horrified by the pain Dae-su Oh has to live through. At the same time, we know that there is worse to come, but the mystery of who is manipulating him means that we can't see it coming. Few will guess the big surprise at the end, but it's a good twist that makes sense in retrospect.
Tartan Films has released Oldboy as part of their Asia Extreme line, with good reason. It's a fantastic disc, one that fans of the film will definitely want to add to their collections. The video transfer is pristine, a reference-quality transfer in the film's original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The sound pounds through in a choice of the original Korean in either Dolby 5.1 or DTS, or a Dolby 5.1 English dub. No matter how you decide to watch it, you will be happy. The surrounds are put to consistent and effective use, the LFE is active and the music and dialogue have been fantastically mixed. The dub is surprisingly well-produced, though it takes some liberties with the translation. Still, it's remarkable how far dubs of Asian films have come over the past few years. I still prefer the original language track, but at least we are starting to get an acceptable alternative to lure in people who don't realize how great foreign films can be.
There are also a number of special features here. There is a commentary track with Chan-wook Park and cinematographer Jeong-hun Jeong. Unfortunately, there is an issue with the English subtitles of this track, and I was unable to read it. There is also an interview with Chan-wook Park in an auditorium, in which he fields questions that he was given ahead of time. He is a very articulate speaker, and his answers are fascinating and telling. Next up is a series of deleted scenes, including segments that were removed from existing scenes. They are excellent, though I'm glad that Oldboy's running time wasn't made longer by their inclusion in the final cut. Each comes with optional commentary. Past that, there are some photo galleries and trailers.
Sometimes as a critic, there just isn't much to criticize. If you can handle a heady dose of violence, sex, and other disturbing content, don't pass up the chance to see Oldboy. Head into it with as few expectations as possible, kick back, and let Chan-wook Park take you on a completely breathtaking journey into the dark side of life. There's a Hollywood remake of the film on the way, but this release from Tartan Films gives you no reason to wait for it, even if you don't like subtitles. I can't imagine any director/actor pairing nailing this story the way that Park and Choi have, and this disc deserves to be purchased, explored and shared with adventurous friends.
Dae-su Oh has been through enough. He is hereby released, but only if it is explained to him clearly that I had nothing to do with his incarceration.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
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