In my mind, Japan is at the center of a cinematic revolution. Directors such as Takashi Miike, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and Hideo Nakata are turning the medium on its head, displaying a sense of creativity and invention that is rarely seen in American film anymore. Hideo Nakata's Ring (incorrectly translated as Ringu here in the States) began a horror revolution. Aside from the obligatory Western remake, the picture sparked imitators all around the world. Many of its Japanese offspring have made it to our shores (the abysmal Ju-on being a high profile example), but that's nothing compared to what's going on in Korea.
The Korean film scene, never seen as a particularly vibrant spot on the cinematic map, dove headfirst into the waters Nakata treaded in Ring, making wave after wave of "ghost with a vengeance" pictures. I have, in my attempts to find unexpected works from other countries, seen far too many of these. A good many of them, aside from being wholly derivative, are also often incomprehensible or just poorly made. It got to the point where I refused to see any films from Korea, because I had been burned so many times. Which brings me to Chan-wook Park.
Park is a bold visionary, blazing his own trail in a stagnant and unoriginal community. Doggedly determined to make his own movies on his own terms, Park has claimed a name for himself as the preeminent Korean filmmaker. He first came to prominence in America with Oldboy, a riveting tale of revenge that will remain Park's signature piece for years to come.
Oh Dae-su (Min-sik Choi) is a drunk and an asshole. Despite this, he has a wife and child and a friend who looks after him. One night, after a particularly brutal night of drinking, Oh Dae-su seems to disappear out of thin air. In truth, he's been abducted. He's held in a prison cell that looks like a hotel room. With nothing else to do, he watches TV, trains himself to fight, hallucinates, and swears he will get revenge on the person who did this to him. Without warning, he's released fifteen years after his initial incarceration. He begins a search for his captor, and ends up falling in with Mido (Hye-jeong Kang), a cute sushi chef he encounters on the outside. Soon he realizes that his former jailer released him for a reason, and intends to string Oh Dae-su along until for some perverse game. Oh Dae-su is more than willing to comply.
Oldboy is a shock to the senses. Chan-wook Park fills his frames with gorgeous and often uncommon imagery. From the scene where Oh Dae-su eats an octopus to a peculiar painting in his cell, Park ensures that the audience is never visually bored. He also constructs his story as an intricate puzzle box, always leaving the audience on the verge of revelation. Interestingly, Park keeps things on a relatively linear track, despite the initial opening shots. He also works hard to keep Oh Dae-su's hallucinations confined to areas where they're clearly defined as not part of reality. I kept waiting for a twist that never came: That Oh Dae-su had never been released at all. Park does a great job of playing with the audience's expectations.
Min-sik Choi bursts onto the screen as the embittered Oh Dae-su, propelling the film forward with a ferocity rarely seen these days. It's an explosive performance that makes the audience sit up and take notice just as much as Park's cinematic tricks. Hye-jeong Kang is both hilarious and touching as Mido. She has a sensitivity to her that is a great contrast to her bolder moments. At one point, she admits to Oh Dae-su that she will ask him to have sex with her, and that when he does, he should really give it to her. As she says it, she extends her fist outwards in front of Oh Dae-su's face. The frank and blatant statement is so at odds with her small frame and mousy voice that it's instantly hilarious.
Oldboy's triumph is in Park's ability to draw the audience in from the very first moments. He sells you on his world to the point that even if all he's showing is twenty minutes of one man incarcerated, you buy it immediately. And once he has your attention, he plays with your expectations, toying with your preconceptions. The film doesn't let go until it's good and ready, and even after the credits have rolled, you'll find yourself mulling over it in your mind, like an ant that has burrowed its way under your skin. If only the rest of the Korean film community were as creative as Park, international cinema would be in a much better place.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Still, Oldboy is not a flashy, high-end release and this Blu-ray reflects that. The first thing you'll notice is how soft the image is. At times, it almost looks blurry. The quality varies from shot to shot, some are soft and grainy, others are clear and crisp, but most are somewhere in the middle. Close-ups look the best, of course, but some of the sequences can be quite impressive. I was particularly engrossed in the infamous hallway fight, which I won't spoil for anyone who hasn't yet seen the picture. I noticed several blemishes on the print they used, which came around far too often given the movie's age. Still, this is the best representation of Park's intentions to date. It's just not going to be a disc you'll use to impress your friends.