Director : Park Chan-wook
Screenplay : Jo-yun Hwang, Chun-hyeong Lim, Joon-hyung Lim, Park Chan-wook (story by Garon Tsuchiya)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2003 (South Korea) / 2005 (U.S.)
Stars : Min-sik Choi (Dae-su Oh), Ji-tae Yu (Woo-jin Lee), Hye-jeong Kang (Mi-do), Dae-han Ji (No Joo-hwan), Dal-su Oh (Park Cheol-woong), Byeong-ok Kim (Mr. Han), Seung-Shin Lee (Yoo Hyung-ja), Jin-seo Yun (Lee Soo-ah), Dae-yeon Lee (Beggar), Kwang-rok Oh (Suicidal Man), Tae-kyung Oh (Young Dae-su)
After seeing Park Chan-wook's Oldboy, I was reminded of a line of dialogue in one of the opening scenes of David Fincher's Seven (1995), a film with which Oldboy shares more than a few similarities, in both its visual use of bruised colors and sharp contrasts and its despondent, near nihilistic view of the futility of vengeance. In this scene, Morgan Freeman's wearied veteran detective finds himself in a squalid apartment investigating a man who has been killed by a shotgun. Another detective murmurs that it was "a crime of passion," to which Freeman intones, "Yeah, just look at all that passion on the wall."
Oldboy is filled with the kind of passion that gets splattered on walls. Awarded the Jury Grand Prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival (not incidentally, by a jury headed by Quentin Tarantino), it is a morally bleak, but emotionally charged and artistically vivacious portrait of extremes. The central theme is revenge -- hardly an original concept -- but Park Chan-wook complicates it by giving us vengeance within vengeance, eventually melting the walls between avenger and avenged until they are one in the same.
The lead role is played in a knock-out performance of spit, blood, and fury by Min-sik Choi, in which he veers from psychotic, to tender, to invincible, to a wailing dog. Choi, who has a bedraggled Charles Bronson mug, stars as Dae-su Oh, a South Korean businessman who is inexplicably snatched off the street one night and imprisoned in what appears to be a seedy motel room. He is never told why he has been imprisoned or by whom. Whoever is responsible clearly wants him to remain alive. He is fed everyday and generally cared for, and even his multiple suicide attempts are thwarted. When he was abducted, his wife was killed and he was framed for the murder, something he learns by watching television, his only connection to the world outside the walls of his prison.
Days pass into months, months into years. Finally, after 15 long years of completely isolated imprisonment (Dae-su marks the passage of time by self-tattooing hatch marks for each year on his arm), he is just as inexplicably released. Shaggy-haired and wild-eyed, he at first has to adjust to sunlight and the presence of other people; in fact, he is so starved for human contact that the first person he encounters (ironically, an on-the-brink suicidal man on a rooftop) he touches all over just to feel flesh and heat.
However, Dae-su's attention immediately turns to discovering and taking out his pent-up wrath on the person responsible for his imprisonment. In this effort, he is aided by a young girl named Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang), who he meets at a sushi restaurant. Despite Dae-su's bizarre behavior at the restaurant, which includes eating a live octopus whole, Mi-do -- inexplicably, again (seeing the pattern here?) -- decides to help him. In the process, they fall in love with each other, which seems like one of those annoying movie contrivances, but is actually a set-up for something deeply sinister that isn't revealed until the final reel.
The second half of Oldboy follows Dae-su as he attempts to piece together the mystery of what happened to him. Fairly early on he discovers the identity of the person who imprisoned him, but that's only half of the riddle. The real question, the one bubbling underneath with enough force to temporarily thwart his initial desires for revenge, is "Why?" This is where Oldboy starts getting particularly tricky, as it devolves into multiple flashbacks that flesh out the reasoning behind such an extreme form of punishment. The layers are slowly peeled away, and part of the film's power is in the way it suggests something simple, but then digs a little deeper and gets at progressively darker and darker layers, until every character is eventually implicated in some form of perversion, whether intentional or forced.
Park Chan-wook is an impressive stylist, which keeps Oldboy charged beyond the maddening intrigue of its story. Bruised tones of green and brown predominate, and much of the story takes place in extreme environments, whether it be the dank prison where Dae-su is kept or the spare, modernist penthouse where all the pieces finally come together.
Not surprisingly, Oldboy is sometimes stomach-churning in its violence, although a second viewing confirms that most of the gore is kept off-screen. Of course, when the gore involves teeth being ripped out with a hammer claw and a character cutting off his own tongue with scissors, it doesn't take much more than suggestion to have an impact. The film's true bravura moment, though, is an extended, unbroken parallel tracking shot that follows Dae-su down a hallway as he takes on a literal army of hired thugs (one of the film's most fantastical contrivances is that Dae-su literally wills himself into becoming a master fighter by practicing alone in his hotel prison). Like Brian De Palma, Park Chan-wook has a keen understanding of the power of operatic music in balancing horror and action and parody, and his soaring musical score constantly punches up the action, giving it an over-the-top melodramatic flair.
The various interlocking forms of vengeance in Oldboy cater to fundamental emotions about family and honor, but turn them inside out, questioning not anything, but everything. Far from being a sadistic celebration of vengeance, the film consistently undermines easy catharsis by portraying the ultimate senselessness of it all.
|Release Date||August 23, 2005|
|The new anamorphic widescreen transfer is stunningly good. Oldboy is a film rich in dark visuals, harsh colors, and noir-ish lighting, and the transfer handles it all extremely well, with solid blacks and excellent shadow detail. The colors have just the right sickly tones, and the image's smallest details are sharp and well-defined. For one of its biggest U.S. releases, Tartan has come up with one their best transfers ever.|
|While both the Korean DTS EX 5.1 and the English Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtracks are first-rate, I prefer the DTS Korean-language track, not only because the DTS slightly edges out the Dolby, but because I find dubbed soundtracks next to intolerable, even when they're as well done as the one is on this disc. The soaring, operatic music has delicious breadth and kick to it, and the ambient sounds that give the film its constant sense of unease and dread are beautifully reproduced.|
|Although not as rich in supplementary materials as the Region 2 U.K. DVD, Tartan's Region 1 disc has enough to keep you busy for a while after the movie is over. The main supplement is a feature-length audio commentary by director Park Chan-wook and cinematographer Chung Chung-Hoon (as it is in Korean, you have to read it in subtitles). The commentary is fairly technical in nature, but it offers some intriguing insight into the making of the film and the particular visual choices the filmmakers made. Park Chan-wook also appears in a brief video interview that was conducted at a pre-Cannes press conference. Also included on the disc are roughly 21 minutes of deleted scenes, virtually all of which are simply extended versions of the scenes already in the film. These scenes also have an optional commentary by the director. Lastly, there is a photo gallery, a theatrical trailer, and a fan-made trailer that won an Oldboy trailer contest held last year.|
Copyright © 2005 James Kendrick
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