The first time I saw Oldboy it was a bootleg DVD with poor picture, terrible sound, and subtitles I could barely read. And even then, under such less-than-ideal circumstances, I knew I was watching one of the best films I had seen in years. Part of a fairly recent wave of movies from South Korea, Oldboy has been building a legion of loyal fans among those who had seen it at film festivals, during its limited theatrical runs, and on "pirated" DVDs imported from Asia. But now, with its offical U.S. release courtesy the good folks at Tartan Asia Extreme, Oldboy has an opportunity to reach and even larger audience, who will no doubt become diehard fans of this a dark, disturbing film that puts most American action movies to shame and leaves all other psychological thrillers cowering in the dust.
Choi Min-sik stars as Oh Dae-su, a hard drinker who, for reasons he does not know, finds himself held
captive in a strange apartment-turned-prison. Dae-su tries to make sense of his situation, compiling a rather lengthy list of those he has wronged, but he still cannot fathom who would want to see him suffer like this. He spends his days watching television, punching the wall, and slowly but surely digging a tunnel to freedom, all the while his sanity slowly slips away. In the mean time, his captors continue to manipulate him, injecting him with drugs and hypnotizing him for their own sinister reasons. After 15 long years, Dae-su is released. Now he must find out who had him locked up and get his revenge. Along the way, he falls in love with a young woman (Hye-jeong Kang) who tries to help him unravel the mystery.
Dae-su's investigation takes him down a dark path of deception and violence. In one of the film's most brutal moments, our tortured hero, armed only with a hammer, takes on a small army of thugs. But as he comes closer to understanding why he was imprisoned all those years, Dae-su begins to realize that the pain and anguish he endured in captivity was nothing compared to what his mysterious tormentor has in store for him now.
In a complex performance that runs the gamut of humanity and brutality, Choi Min-sik stakes his claim as one of the greatest tough guys in the history of cinema, joining the ranks of Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson and Toshiro Mifune. American audiences may know Min-sik from his hardboiled turn in Shiri, but his performance in Oldboy is the stuff of movie legend. By the time Dae-su enters a sushi bar, orders "something alive", and proceeds to devour a live octopus, Min-sik has earned his places in the pantheon of onscreen asskickers. From his descent into madness, to his hammer-wielding attack against overwhelming odds, to his struggle to regain his humanity, Min-sik commands the screen in a way only a handful of actors ever have.
Oldboy is one of those rare films that succeeds on all levels. Director Park Chanwook never tips his hand, and the secret of Oldboy remains a mystery until he wants you to know what is going on. And then there are the twists, turns and plot hooks that blindside you and, at the end of the day, leave you drained and disturbed.
Oldboy is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The picture transfer is beautiful, preserving Chung Chung-hoon's amazing cinematography.
Oldboy is presented with the original Korean language track in both Dolby Digital EX 5.1 Surround Sound and 5.1 DTS both which sound excellent. There is also an English dubbed language track presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. I know some people don't like their movies subtitled, and for them the English dubbed track may work. I personally can't stand dubbing, and the additional language track seemed pointless to me. The actor used to dub Choi Min-sik lacks the gravitas and guttural tone to required to sell the English version. They needed a voice that sounds as tough as the man who takes a hammer to a small army of thugs, and this guy doesn't haven't. But at least we're given the option of one language or the other.
A film like Oldboy is the sort that doesn't really need any bonus features --the movie itself is enough to keep you satisfied. Still, there are some interesting features worth checking out. Director Park Chanwook and cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon provide an audio commentary that is mostly tech-talk. They both go on and on about lighting techniques and which lens they used, but don't spend enough time talking about the heart and soul of Oldboy. Still, interesting tidbits come out, like the fact that the infamous, single-shot hammer attack scene was shot 17 times (that's right, 17 times). An interview with Park gives a bit more insight into his mind as a filmmaker, but unfortunately it runs too short. A selection of deleted an alternate scenes (with optional commentary by Park) offer an interesting look at the decisions made by the director as to what should stay and what should go. Two brief but key scenes make the film's villain out to be a bit more human, and thankfully they were cut, while a prolonged opening sequence shows that more can often be too much. Finally, there is a "fan cut" trailer which won the Tartan Films Oldboy Trailer Contest that's worth a peek.
There are great films that come along every now and then, but not all of them hold up to multiple viewings the way Oldboy does. This is a film so textured and layered with emotional complexity that it changes each time you watch it. When making the tough decisions about what DVDs to rent versus what ones to buy, Oldboy is one of those rare few that you really should own.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]