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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:
Tartan Video presents Oldboy in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 in an AVC-encoded 1080p transfer. This being my first exposure to the film, I tried to read up on its previous versions in an attempt to acclimate myself to its history on home video. From what I understand, Park has only approved one transfer of the movie, and that was from a DVD released by Starmax. Tartan has released two editions, both with a different color scheme than the Starmax. This Blu-ray seems to have corrected much of that, bringing the image closer to the Starmax transfer, but without the pesky noise and artifacts that plagued that release.
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.
Tartan offers several different audio options on Oldboy. There's the lossless DTS-HD MA 7.1 mix, Dolby Digital EX 5.1 mix, 2.0, and a surround and stereo mix of the English dub. While I'm currently only able to decode the lossy core on DTS-HD MA mixes, it still sounded excellent. The bass in particular has quite a presence, rumbling quite often (I wonder if this is done to perpetually keep the audience off balance), and spiking whenever there's any kind of on-screen violence. The dynamics are expansive, with the surrounds constantly being used for atmospheric and ambient noises. Any given external scene is practically alive, with the sounds of the city all around. The English dubs don't sound nearly as good, with less fidelity and a noticeable difference in quality between the dialogue and the rest of the track. But the Korean is a show stopper.
Tartan has released a 3-disc edition of Oldboy in a collector's tin, which has practically everything you'd ever want to know about the movie. Many of the supplements from that set have been ported over to this Blu-ray release, which has the film on a Blu-ray disc and the extras on a DVD. Sadly, one of the items left off this disc is a documentary that runs over three hours. While what we get isn't bad, it's annoying to know that there's such a large entry missing. All of the special features are in standard definition.
- Commentary with Director Chanwook Park: English subtitles accompany this Korean commentary by the film's director. Park gives a blow by blow of the process of the film, from his first exposure to the graphic novel through the reactions he's received since the film's release. In between he discusses many of the picture's themes and the character motivations. Essential listening (or reading).
- Commentary with Director Chanwook Park and Actors Min-sik Choi, Hye-jeong Kang, and Ji-tae Yu: Park leads a commentary with the main cast members. Instead of taking the spotlight again, Park uses the time to get the impressions of his actors, eliciting remembrances and thoughts on the picture. A nice companion track. Also in Korean with English subtitles.
- Commentary with Director Chanwook Park and Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung: By the time you get to the third commentary, you might find your tolerance wearing a little thin. It doesn't help that this track is far more technically inclined than the other two, and thus more dry. However, there are times when Park discusses how the shots inform the main themes, and these comments can be illuminating. As with the others, this is in Korean with English subtitles.
- Deleted Scenes: For a film as tightly wound and constructed as Oldboy, I was hesitant to watch the deleted scenes. I was afraid they might offer up information I didn't want to know. While there was nothing that serious, there is almost half an hour of footage here, most of it not essential to the plot. Chanwook Park provides optional commentary.
- Behind The Scenes: Split into five sections ("The Cast Remembers," "Production Design," "The Music Score," "CGI," "Flashback"), this collection runs over an hour and goes in-depth into each of these respective categories. Much of this is in the form of interviews, but not your standard EPK dialogue. Almost everyone associated with the film has something to say, and they often do. However, as the main behind the scenes feature, you can see where the missing 3 hour documentary would have made this package more complete.
- Cast and Crew Interviews: Almost an hour of even more interviews, there's still new things to hear.
- Le Grand Prix At Cannes: Oldboy won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, and this all too brief featurette shows off the group's experiences at that French film festival.
Oldboy is a must-see film. Director Chanwook Park has put Korea on the movie-making map, marking him as a formidable world talent. Oldboy is his signature work, which overflows with vitality and surprise. This Blu-ray release is a mixed bag. The video quality is uneven (albeit still an improvement over any existing DVD edition), but the sound is incredible. The supplements are substantial, but missing is an in-depth 3-hour documentary. Still, the high quality of the movie makes this a disc worth seeing. Recommended.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.