So much has been written about OldBoy that I feel like I'm wading into a minefield even doing a review of what is arguably the weakest DVD version of the film currently extant. Having witnessed how controversial both Kevin's review of the Starmax SE and Alex' review of the Tartan SE were (apparently for not having lauded the strengths of OldBoy loudly enough), I can only tremble in my boots at the reaction my opinion of the film is likely to engender. As such, I'm only going to do an abbreviated film synopsis here and treat this as more of a technical review for those out there still trying to decide which DVD version of OldBoy best suits their needs.
For those who don't already know, the central character of OldBoy is average salaryman Oh Dae-su (played by Choi Min-sik), who is detained for disorderly conduct after a night of heavy drinking and has to be retrieved from the police station by a co-worker. The two stop at a phonebooth and no sooner is his friend passing along the news to Dae-su's wife that he'll be bringing him home soon than Dae-su vanishes without a trace. From this point on, he is imprisoned in a dingy hotel room for 15 years, during which time he not only watches the events of the outside world unfold but learns (a year on) that he's been framed for the murder of his wife. Nor is he idle during this period, as he keeps himself physically fit, practices street fighting moves that he sees in films on the TV, and gradually digs an escape route out through the wall behind his bed. Before he ever gets a chance to use it, however, he is unceremoniously freed, dumped in a steamer trunk on the roof of a downtown building, and posed the challenge of discovering why this all happened to him. Oh, and he is given only five days to work it all out.
It's a taut premise and one that hooked me the moment I heard about OldBoy. I was slightly disappointed the theatrical trailer was such a hodgepodge, but I was still very keen to see the film. So it's with some sadness that I report that this recent (2003) offering by director Chan-wook Park (Joint Security Area, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance) trends towards style over substance. Solid performances by Choi Min-sik and his co-stars – Ji-tae Yu (Into the Mirror, Natural City) and Hye-jeong Kang (The Butterfly) – fail to give this film the deeper meaning I was hoping for.
Despite plenty of visceral shocks (the oft-mentioned 'live squid eating' scene, the 'hammer to the teeth' scene, etc. ad nauseam) and a 'twist' designed to provoke a specific emotional response, there's something about OldBoy which just feels hollow to me. In particular, the motivations of the antagonist and the eventual denouement were rather anticlimactic; at the end of the film I was left with an 'Is that it?' kind of feeling which robbed me of some of the entertainment value I had already derived from the previous two hours' watching.
That said, OldBoy isn't a bad film. It's got a nice concept, amazing cinematography (including some extremely subtle stylish touches, like the 'pull-back through the chopsticks' sequence), good acting, and bags of style. It's definitely an entertaining watch. But it doesn't finish anywhere nearly as strong as it starts, even taking into consideration the twist… which for many will be given away early on by any of the many not-entirely-subtle clues that pepper the running time.
I am extremely frustrated by the video on this disc, because it seems to have a split personality. The vast, vast majority of the time it is really quite crisp and provides excellent levels of contrast, colour, and visual detail. And then, randomly scattered throughout the running time, there are scenes which look so fuzzy and grainy that – seen out of context – one would assume they were lifted from some bad-quality pirate DivX of OldBoy downloaded off the Net. Normally I'd simply assume that there's some quirkiness in the way my DVD player is decoding the R3 NTSC signal, but I have several other R3 DVDs and they don't show these kinds of problems… and surely the fact that the rest of OldBoy looks sharp as a tack suggests that the problem is with the DVD and not with my player. So it's really odd; the only other theory I can set forward is that these scenes were deliberately designed to be fuzzy as some sort of mood-setting psychovisual effect, but if so, they look rubbish.
Probably the one bright spot on this Hong Kong release of OldBoy is the fact that it includes not just the usual Korean Dolby Digital 5.1 EX soundtrack, but also a full-on DTS-ES 6.1 version for those of you out there graced with the right equipment. (Alas, I'm still confined to DD 5.1, but someday perhaps I'll be able to join you in the ranks of the exalted DTS listeners.)
Not being able to judge the superior audio track, I'm left to report my experiences with the Dolby one… and they are not entirely good. Whilst certain aspects of this production shine (for example, the absolutely brilliant musical score composed by the joint efforts of Lee Ji-su, Shim Hyeon-jeong, and Choi Sung-hyeon) and there's no question that the DD 5.1 EX soundtrack takes full advantage of the speaker setup (with its pounding bass, spot-on stereo directionality, and (hyper-)active rear soundstage), one thing which seems to have been overlooked in all this sonic gusto is a fine-tuning of the dynamic levels. Honestly, I haven't watched a DVD in recent memory that forced me to reach so often for the VOLUME buttons on the remote control; one minute things are so quiet that you can barely hear what's being said, the next it's as if the sound engineer was shot in the back of the head and just slumped over the console, pushing all the sliders up to max. So I have to deduct some points for sheer slack on this technical front.
The disc menus for OldBoy are, frankly, something of a traffic accident. Putting the DVD in the player first yields the usual copyright warnings and forced trailers, then some studio idents and then attempts to play the film without ever taking the viewer to a menu. Trying to use the MENU button on your DVD player's remote is an exercise in futility as there are bizarre control interdicts slapped all over this disc, so there are very few places you can override what the DVD wants to do to actually make it work for you. I finally managed to get to the main menu by skipping forward a couple chapters in the film and then trying the MENU button again, but is the average viewer going to think of this? And should they have to?
Horrendously bad menu navigation aside, when you finally manage to get to it, the main menu is actually quite pleasant to look at, and is all in English so it's not a case of 'mystery meat' to access the limited set of options.
As I mentioned at the outset of this write-up, this particular release of OldBoy does not precisely shine from the perspective of extras. A relatively 'bare bones' affair by Edko, this R3 edition lacks any of the feature-length audio commentaries (between one and five of which are found on almost every other version of the DVD), includes only a very marginal behind-the-scenes segment (mostly composed of un-narrated random BTS video clips totalling 11 minutes in running time), and has absolutely nothing to offer in the way of featurettes or interviews with the cast. Rounding out the special features here are the obligatory theatrical trailer (2.5 minutes long), a TV spot (30 seconds), a meagre photo gallery containing 10 images total, and four static pages of cast/crew filmographies for the director and the three principals. And in case you're curious, English subtitles are only provided for the trailer. I personally would have very much liked to hear Chan-wook Park's insights into the production, so for me the loss of the audio commentary is the biggest blow. Still, at least there are a handful of extras included, even if they are extremely marginal in value.
Whilst I did like OldBoy, I certainly didn't love it. Although Choi Min-sik's performance as Oh Dae-su is arguably superb and the plot – whilst ultimately predictable – remains a quite serviceable revenge tale with a grim twist, I think the fairest way to sum up my feelings about the film is to say that it's not surprising that Quentin Tarantino loved this to bits. In short, it's a visually-arresting piece of cinema which scores 10 out of 10 for style, but at its core is missing a few vital bits which would have elevated it to genuine greatness. So by all means watch OldBoy for entertainment value and sheer spectacle… but don't expect an incredibly deep story to match.
Anyway, as most of you reading this have probably already made up your minds as to whether you want to own this film on DVD, the more important question is whether this is the version for you. I would have to argue 'no' on the basis of the dearth of special features alone, even if the menus weren't a mess and the video and audio didn't have some irregularities as well. Economical this disc may be, but if you want a copy of OldBoy sitting on your DVD shelf, it might be better to spend a little extra dosh and pick up one of the more fully-featured versions available.