A British friend once referred to Judge Joel Pearce as "old boy." Joel locked him a basement for 15 years for being a prat.
Laugh and the world laughs with you.
I was happy for this opportunity to return to Oldboy. It was the first film in Park Chan-wook's revenge trilogy that I saw and reviewed, and I've reviewed the other two since. This new release of Oldboy also makes up for all the complaints I've ever had about Asian importers failing to make truly impressive special editions.
Facts of the Case
After a night of heavy drinking, a man named Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik, Lady Vengeance) wakes up in a small room. Men bring him food to eat, but will not talk to him through the heavy metal door. Why is he here? Who could be so angry with him that they would lock him up like this? He has only the television to keep him company, and he spends a lot of time mourning his pathetic fate. After a few years, his focus changes. First, he starts a journal documenting the ways he has hurt people in the past, in an attempt to piece together the possibilities. Then, he starts to train hard, pushing his body so that he will be ready to take revenge when he's finally free.
After fifteen years, he is released. He receives a phone call informing him that he has five days to find out who did this to him and why. If he can't piece it together by then, he will never know.
This time watching Oldboy, I was struck by its tragic nature. I don't mean chick-flick tear-jerker tragic, and I don't even mean Hamlet the Dane tragic. I mean classic, old fashioned, Greek, tear-your-own-eyes-out tragic. Here, everything that Oh Dae-su experiences pushes him closer to his final, cataclysmic end. Nothing that he does can slow fate down or prevent the inevitable from happening. He is not a noble character with a tragic flaw that trips him up; he is an ordinary person chosen by fate to suffer indignity and horror. When we finally discover the reason he has been put through so much, it seems almost laughable that such a trivial event Oh Dae-su doesn't even remember could lead to this kind of horror.
Which brings us to the important role memory plays in Oldboy. Separation from the world and the loss of his free will aren't the most dreadful punishments Oh Dae-su faces in his cell. His greatest suffering is from going over his bad memories, trying to figure out why he is there. His journal is the real punishment, and it's self inflicted. He is also left with the memories of his family, and the fact that he will have fifteen years of potential memories taken away. The key sequence of the film arrives as he remembers the moment that drives the conflict, and he learns that hypnosis has been used to alter his memories while trapped in the prison. Memory also plays into the ending, but I won't spoil that for you here.
In all this, we are starkly reminded that Oh Dae-su could be any of us. There could be someone out there still seething over an offhand remark that we made 15 years ago, a remark that we don't even remember making. If that person is wealthy enough or powerful enough, it could come back to haunt us someday. I don't think Oldboy is a warning in that sense, but there is a macabre satisfaction in watching a man's life unravel in the face of a vastly superior foe. We rarely see this kind of tragedy anymore, for a wide range of reasons. Classic tragedies need to be larger than life but still allow us to feel pathos for the characters. The conclusions must be poetic, but not so obvious that the audience guesses where the grisly road will lead. Park Chan-wook has created one of these tragedies, and we are still drawn to it for the same gruesome satisfaction that Greek audiences sought out thousands of years ago.
And now, walking through Oh Dae-su's doomed story once again, I am better equipped to see where this film sits in Park Chan-wook's revenge saga. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a tragedy of circumstance. Two equals are pitted against each other, leading to the inevitable downfall of both. Lady Vengeance presents a satisfying conclusion to the series, bringing us to a place where revenge can actually work. Oldboy sits oddly in the middle, a challenging but endlessly stylish blend of two tales. There is the revenge story of the mysterious man, who has crafted so cruel and skillful a plot that Oh Dae-su has no chance of success. It is also the revenge tragedy of Oh Dae-su himself, an ordinary man driven to great but ultimately impossible lengths to avenge his own suffering. It remains an impressively powerful film, whether you want a stylish revenge story, or a rich and complex tragedy. I also don't have the same qualms about the film that I did in my last review. The tragic nature of the story is the point, and it's enough to carry this monstrously entertaining film.
This time around, Tartan's Ultimate Edition is every bit as impressive as the movie itself. They have gone back to the already good transfer, cleaned it up further and fixed some of the PAL to NTSC problems that the company is often plagued by. The sound has been upgraded as well, into a ground-shaking 6.1 DTS track that edges out the previous track as well. I expected the same transfer as the original release, but on a high quality display this disc is noticeably better.
The only extra on the first disc is a trio of commentary tracks. One is with Park Chan-wook alone, one has him accompanied by the cinematographer, and a third has him joined by the cast. The three commentary tracks cover pretty much every single angle of the production.
The second disc holds a number of valuable extras. There are a series of deleted scenes and alternate takes, all available with or without commentary. They are fascinating, and explained unusually well. The Oldboy at Cannes featurette is also interesting, because it is told from the perspective of a director that never expected to go to Cannes, and never expected to win at Cannes. This humility and humor shows us a new side to the festival experience, one that puts us on the other side of the red carpet. There are a slew of interviews, with cast members, the production team, even the author of the original comic series. There are a series of featurettes as well, which cover quite a few areas. These featurettes and interviews are quite polished, and allow fans of the film to dig as deep as possible into the production and its meaning.
The third disc contains no less than a feature length (over three hours) video production diary. While it isn't quite as in-depth as the King Kong production diaries, even the most enthusiastic fan of the film will be happy with the level of detail here. It might be the best way to explore the filming and acting aspect of film, as it places the interviews of the stars into context, so we know what they were shooting at the time. This is an impressive array of extras, not only in quantity, but in quality as well.
On top of the three discs loaded with special features, Tartan has also included the first volume of the graphic novel in the set. There have been major departures from the original story, so it's interesting to read. While it is unquestionably an adaptation, Park Chan-wook has obviously made the film his own. There is also a 32mm collectible film frame. All of this comes in a nice looking tin that looks a lot like the Band of Brothers set.
Oldboy remains an impressive and unique film, one that showcases the talent of contemporary South Korean filmmaking. I'm not surprised that this is the film that would make such a splash internationally, as the subject matter and style are universal, it features phenomenal cinematography and editing, but never lets the style overwhelm the deeply felt characters. If you haven't yet explored this unique and impressive film, this Ultimate Edition release is a great way to do it. If you're a fan, you couldn't ask for more in a special edition release: this is finally the special edition package that Asian film buffs have been waiting for in North America.
Tartan has outdone itself this time. The score I have given this set is not given lightly, and is one I have never given before.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
• Director's Commentary
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