Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Oldboy (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on August 26, 2005

Directed by Park Chan-Wook/screenplay by Hwang Jo-Yun, Lim Joon-Hyung, Park Chan-Wook/starring Choi Min-Sik, Yoo Ji-Tae, Gang Hye-Jung/Tartan Asia Extreme

An ordinary man is imprisoned for 15 years, then released to take his revenge.

It sometimes seems like I’m the last person on Earth to see certain films that everyone is going nuts over. I certainly feel like the last movie critic to get a look at this little Korean film that has become a cult sensation mostly due to Internet sites that raved about it, and other films by its director, long before it was even picked up for release in America. Chan-Wook has become the latest film-geek craze – a few years ago it was Takashi Miike, after that it was Kim Ki-Duk, next year it’ll probably be somebody else.

This is all good in my book. Anything that generates interest in cool foreign films by talented directors – and helps get those films released over here – is awesome. But while I’ve been dying to check out Oldboy for months now, and I was extremely pleased when the good folks at Tartan offered me a copy of the DVD for review (as well as Chan-Wook’s current US theatrical release Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, which I’ll get to soon), I couldn’t help but be a bit hesitant to actually watch the thing. Would it live up to my expectations? Would that even be possible at this point? How many times have we been psyched up for months to see a film by massive Net hype, only to be let down when the actual product was merely decent?

Well, I’m happy to say that not only did Oldboy surpass my expectations, it ripped them out of my cranium, threw them on the ground and stomped on them with a big heavy work shoe. All those months of anticipation simply did not prepare me for this. I don’t think I’ve seen anything this genuinely surprising and emotionally devastating since, well, the Veronica Mars season finale. But don’t get me started on that.

For the 5 people on the Internet who haven’t seen this on a foreign bootleg by now… Oldboy is the story of Oh Dae-Su (Min-Sik), a married businessman who we meet acting like a drunken idiot in a police station after a bar brawl. Our impression of him is one of a middle-class buffoon who needs to ease up on the alcohol. The film then cuts to a prison cell decorated like a cheap hotel room, where Dae-Su is inexplicably held captive for the next 15 years. When he’s finally released, he sets out on a mission to find out who put him there and why…and to kill whoever’s responsible.

Revealing any more than that would simply be unfair, as the pleasures of watching this incredible film are derived primarily from the various twists and turns, and the completely unexpected places the story takes us. The crazier it all seems, the more engrossing it becomes, until it reaches a fever pitch of disturbing violence and desperation. Even when we know who Dae-Su’s adversary is and what his motives are, Chan-Wook still has even more tricks up his sleeve. It’s just insanely intricate and brilliantly detailed.

Oldboy is the second film in Chan-Wook’s “revenge trilogy” (the first being the previously mentioned Mr. Vengeance) but to dismiss it as a simple “don’t get mad, get even” action flick would be a mistake. The director takes an intellectual approach to his subject matter, dissecting the nature of violence and the emotional need for revenge, while at the same time staging some amazing set pieces like the notorious hallway fight. While Dae-Su’s quest to settle the score naturally drives the plot, its morality is called into question several times, especially by young love interest Mi-Do (Hye-Jung), who reminds him that he could easily drop the whole thing and just enjoy his freedom now that he has it. By the end, it remains to be seen exactly who has taken their revenge out on whom, and both protagonist and antagonist display deep wellsprings of heartbreak, despair and regret. Both parties are so fueled by their hatred that each has nothing left to live for besides their mutual grudge. I wouldn’t be shocked to find that the film is actually a political allegory about the tensions between North and South Korea, but the film works incredibly well even without that subtext.

The funny thing is that I was somehow expecting a spare, minimalist film that reflected Dae-Su’s imprisonment, but Oldboy is the complete opposite of that. Instead, Chan-Wook has crafted a stylish masterwork here, a spellbinding array of sights and sounds that demonstrates exactly what Dae-Su has been missing out on all this time – the outside world. I particularly liked the way he depicted the passage of time, using split-screen and a series of TV news clips to show us what’s going on in Korea during his incarceration and slow descent into madness. The “hotel room” is dingy and sickly-looking, with lots of dyspeptic greens and browns. Once he’s released, though, the world seems to open up with breathtaking color and a sense of vivid hyper-reality, which only makes Dae-Su’s loss of a decade and a half seem even sadder.

It’s a rare film that can be both massively entertaining and intellectually stimulating (at least lately, unfortunately), and Oldboy simply kicks ass on both counts. It really seems like Asian filmmakers have it all over Hollywood these days when it comes to creating original stories and telling them with superior skill. It’s no wonder that Hollywood has been pillaging the recent crop of Asian cinema for remakes – last I heard, they were working on this one as a potential vehicle for Nicolas Cage. Well, that might turn out to be interesting too, but I’d highly recommend checking out the original. There’s nothing like a great story told incredibly well, and that’s reason enough to see Oldboy.

Tartan has done their usual bang-up job on the DVD release, with a veritable plethora of special features including commentary from Chan-Wook and cinematographer Chung Chung-Hoon (subtitled in English, obviously), several deleted and alternate scenes, and an enlightening interview with Chan-Wook. There’s also an English dubbed version on the disc for all you heathens out there. Those of you who already own bootleg or Region 0 copies of the film would be well-served to pick this one up anyway. It’s a very good package for an extremely deserving film.

**** 8/26/05

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