Usually when asian movies manage to cross over into the American market they involve elaborately beautiful settings where warriors fly through the air wielding weapons with mythical skills. You’ll find none of that in Oldboy, a Korean film that not only managed to find its way into the American market, but also took the Grand Prix at Cannes film festival without drawing a single sword.
Although there are no swords, that’s not to say there aren’t moments of conflict in Oldboy. In fact, when we first meet the hero of the film he’s holding a man off the edge of a building by his tie, his face hidden in shadow as the sun beats down on his apparent victim. With the question “who are you?” we then turn to the events leading up to this, starting in a police station where the central character, Oh Dae-su, has been arrested. His conduct is filmed in a near-documentary style, cutting between shots of Oh Dae-su’s outrageous behavior as he tries to pee in the corner and tells the unseen cops off for arresting him. This verite' film style is the last touch of reality we see in the movie, as Oh Dae-su is abducted shortly after leaving the police station and held prisoner in a mysterious hotel-room-like cell for fifteen years. With this abduction the film changes to a surreal story of mystery and revenge, leaving reality fifteen years behind.
Oh Dae-su is finally let go from his captivity. With an amazing transformation thanks to makeup and incredible acting by Min-sik Choi, Oh Dae-su is a changed man. He is no longer the fat outlandish character we saw in the police station. Instead he is a man aged by captivity, and driven by a need to find out who held him prisoner for all of those years, and more importantly why. Oh Dae-su is a hero along the lines of Jean Valjean, haunted by greater consequences than he feels acceptable for what he’s done, except Oh Dae-su is unaware of what actions he performed that called for such a long, destructive sentence of captivity.
If I compare Dae-su to Jean Valjean then I should also stop for a moment and give recognition to Ji-tae Yu who would be the equivalent of Dae-su’s Inspector Javier. Ji-tae Yu plays a villainous character who is both wickedly evil and strangely sympathetic once all his secrets have been shown. To say more would spoil the plot, but I can’t pass up the opportunity to recognize his formidable abilities to create a complex, believable character.
Along the way Oh Dae-su befriends Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang), a character Oh Dae-su correctly describes as a “young girl who cries too much”. At first Oh Mi-do is a new companion, the first woman Dae-su has come into contact with in fifteen years. As Oh Dae-su slowly unfolds the reason for his imprisonment though, he starts to discover that perhaps their meeting was not just happenstance. This just goes to show that there is almost nothing in writer/director Chan-wook Park’s film that exists without a reason.
Oldboy is a visually stunning film, impressive from its first stylized shot until its final moments of beauty. What’s fantastic about the film though, is it doesn’t require stunning landscapes in order to achieve that beauty. Park and cinematographer Jeong-hun Jeong manage to show the squalid beauty of a decaying city sprawl, creating a modern day neon film noir on par with what Ridley Scott did for the future with Blade Runner. Violence is shown in a way to make the most hardened film fan feel a bit squeamish, although most of the actual brutality happens off screen with the horrific deeds hinted at just enough to cause unease. The only real exception to this is the famed “corridor sequence”, an elaborate, brutal fight between Oh Dae-su and a bunch of thugs that lasts over two minutes, all filmed in a single take. As someone who complains all too often about fights not being well choreographed or filmed anymore, Oldboy supports my cause. Allow fights to be seen instead of imagined, and you get a greater effect than any MTV choppy editing will ever accomplish.
The only major downfall of Oldboy is its ending, which is a bit too icky for a lot of people’s tastes. Without spoiling anything, let me just say I had easily guessed a major plot point early in the film, although the movie talked me out of thinking I was right. The final revelation made me feel a bit nauseated and after watching everything that Oh Dae-su had to go through, I’m not sure it was a satisfactory happy ending worthy of the burdens Dae-su had to take on. At the same time, I have to respect Chan-wook Park for sticking to the story he wanted to tell. If I can admire the beauty of the visual style of Oldboy, I guess I have to appreciate his decision on how to end his story, even if I don’t personally like it. Again, nothing in the film exists without good reason.
While this DVD release of Oldboy may not be chock-full of bonus material, what does exist pays tribute to the one area a film like this needs to have the most attention drawn to: the director’s intent. You’ll not find hide nor hair of the cast in the movie’s bonus features, but Chan-wook Park is heavily featured explaining his concepts and vision at every turn.
Before I get too far into the bonus material though, allow me to offer a few concerns about the technical side of the DVD. I played this movie in two different DVD players, both purchased within the last year (actually one might have been a little over a year old, but the point is they’re relatively new). One player had absolutely no issues with the disc at all, providing a beautiful picture and stunning sound. The other disc started running into transition problems in between scenes. The player would pause and I could hear it reading the disc, as if it was running into too much data coming at it at once. I’m not sure what caused the problem on one player but not on another one, but a word of warning.
The other technical issue I had has to do with the movie itself. I’m a huge fan of subtitles in foreign films. I like to hear the intonations of the original actors and I feel something gets lost when actors not in the moment dub their voices over the scenes. Therefore I was extremely disappointed when the default version of the movie to play was the American dub, not the Korean version with English subtitles. Now I’ll admit, I don’t see tons of foreign films, but in most of the ones I’ve watched this disc is in the minority for the default version of the film. Admittedly, it’s not a big deal to have to go through the menus and activate the version of the movie I want to see, but it’s inconsiderate for the producers to put the DVD out this way. I bet more people want to see the subtitled version than the dubbed.
The disc contains almost a dozen deleted scenes, offering alternate/extended takes on scenes that were in the movie or material that was actually cut. Through these we see what the opening would have been like if presented in a more straightforward manner than the verite style that ended up in the film, and also see Oh Dae-su’s first awakening in his cell. There are even two scenes that offered a hint of a twist to the already twisted ending of the film. While it’s interesting to see these different ideas, none of them are superior to what’s in the movie. Also available is a director’s commentary for each scene where Park explains what he was originally going for and why these takes were cut.
There is a brief interview included with Park at some sort of PR event for the film. Curiously, not much information is given about this film as he spends a lot of time comparing Oldboy with his other movies, particularly a failed film he mentions frequently that I would be interested in seeing, and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, another tale of revenge that he made before Oldboy but is just now being brought to the States for a theatrical release. Park also compares Oldboy with his other films in his commentary, although the bulk of the commentary is taken up by cinematographer Jeong-hun Jeong, who explains some of the technical aspects of filming the movie and spends a lot of time talking about what “the director” wanted, which is kind of odd since he’s right there to speak for himself.
One of the major complaints we tend to have about DVDs these days is the lack of a theatrical trailer. Not a problem for Oldboy. Not only does it have the theatrical trailer for the movie, but also a fan-made trailer courtesy of a contest from IFILM.com and Tartan Video. I have to say, comparing the two, I prefer the fan made trailer over the actual theatrical one. Perhaps they should hire the creator of the IFILM.com trailer to create advertising for Park’s future films.
The cover of the DVD boasts that it arrives with the “Quentin Tarantino seal of approval”. This makes sense. If you like Tarantino’s work, most likely you’ll like Oldboy since it carries a lot of the feel of Reservoir Dogs with a bit of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill thrown in. Don’t be confused though, Oldboy is it’s own monster, stylistically far surpassing anything Tarantino has done in his career to date.