Park Chan-Wook’s much anticipated and highly controversial Korean revenge flick is given a meticulously detailed 2-disc DVD release by Tartan. The film is a stylish blend of arthouse invention and Charles Bronson-esque brutality that ultimately falls short of expectations. Alex Hewison reviews.
Oldboy is certainly compelling evidence that revenge, no matter what temperature it’s served at, is an ultimately futile endeavour that might allow for the destruction of one’s adversary but inexorably leads to the ruining of oneself. When businessman Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is kidnapped by persons unknown and held prisoner in an imitation hotel room for fifteen years with nothing more than obnoxious daytime TV and Chinese dumplings to occupy him, it’s fairly clear that a bloodthirsty vengeance is going to be in need of sating. And so we come to the meaty part of the already notorious (not to mention ridiculously over-hyped) OldBoy’s narrative, expect violent scenes of torture, the consumption of an unfortunate live squid and an extremely silly denouement. The film’s technical panache and flashes of genius deserve to be celebrated but OldBoy ultimately is a regrettable example of a film being compromised by its own outlandish ambition. It’s a not entirely coherent mishmash of genres, an amalgam – an admittedly very stylish amalgam – of Pakula’s oppressive paranoia, Miike’s visceral shock tactics, Tarantino’s mordant humour with just a dash of Lynchian surrealism thrown in to give it an off-beam mystique that’s often mistaken for being indicative of layered metaphorical profundity.
The film’s initial stages show intriguing potential: when Oh Dae-Su is given an impromptu release it soon becomes apparent that it is not so much a case of who the perpetrator is, but why they have subjected him to such psychological agony. To add a little romantic spice to the proceedings, the violent and probably half-mad Oh Dae-Su soon finds love and companionship in the willing arms of Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong) who shelters him when he collapses in the restaurant she works at. Ingeniously, Oh Dae-Su’s captor has every intention of letting him uncover the truth, laying a trail of clues (along with a smattering of corpses) to guide him towards the answers whilst ensuring that there’s going to be a razor sharp sting in the tail when he finds them. And it’s here that OldBoy begins to flounder. The music score may resound with an exquisite melange of classical and modern musical styles and for sheer visual morbidity even David Fincher – that maestro of misery – is outdone by the bleak cinematography, but eventually this smorgasbord of technical wizardry becomes an over-indulgence. Take the single unbroken shot of Oh Dae-Su battling against about twenty thugs in the confines of a dingy corridor: it’s an almost painterly piece of virtuoso filmmaking but completely unnecessary considering the stream of assailants he pulverises serve no purpose other than to be beaten. The film’s ending is similarly overburdened with detail, Park Chan-Wook’s determination to give us a multitude of corkscrew plot twists being cumbersomely handled and overly drawn-out. I will, however, admit an element of bias on this particular count, since I guessed the film’s biggest shock not long into the film’s running time – there’s such a blatant hint it’s a wonder so many people are surprised by the revelation – though I remain sceptical as to the effectiveness of Wook’s reliance on this kind of deus ex machina plot device.
I’m doubtful about the validity of the protestations against the movie’s violence; as is so often the case more is implied than actually shown and one’s mind luridly fills in the blanks. An issue that should be of greater concern is the unmistakable misogyny that underscores the film. Though none of the characters are portrayed as honourable figures of benevolence, the attitude towards the women, especially Mi-do, is dismissively lewd to the point of being queasily misogynistic. Mi-do is generally objectified as a sex object, a creature of almost total passivity, often placed in suspiciously fetishistic situations: be it on the toilet or tied up with her shirt ripped open, pleading for release. Oh Dae-su roughs Mi-do up on a few occasions, during sex she moans of the pain she’s enduring but that she’ll bear it because of her love for him and when she prevents Oh Dae-Su from raping her she delightedly requests that in the foreseeable future he try a second time and not stop, no matter how great her resistance is (though to Wook’s credit he does address this on the DVD commentary). Later female characters are given, shall we say, rather unsavoury personalities and Mi-do frequently blurs the line between bewildered innocence and outright stupidity. It’s a shame she’s the recipient of such weak characterisation since Kang Hye-jeong seems to be an actress of some talent who is deserving of material that better complements her skills.
Oh Dae-Su himself isn’t an especially likeable individual (in his commentary Wook describes him as ‘apathetic’ and ‘selfish’), our support for his mission largely being predicated on our own innate fear of being imprisoned seemingly without cause or reason. Choi Min-sik brings a saturnine intensity to the role and makes Oh Dae-Su’s transition from drunken loudmouth to surly killing-machine a convincing one, but the film’s grandiose aspirations of neo-Shakespearian tragedy are undermined by the emotional disconnect between film and audience. As Oh Dae-Su doesn’t elicit empathy, the film’s resonance is displaced and we are left with a surfeit of macabre pizzazz but an absence of real feeling. When Quentin Tarantino was appointed head of the Cannes film festival jury, commentators widely predicted the likelihood of a major award being bestowed upon an Asian film, given Tarantino’s professed love of said cinema. OldBoy’s winning of the Jury Prize was hardly unexpected, as the film’s almost deserving of the caption ‘the greatest movie Quentin Tarantino never made’, possessing a similar propensity for off-screen savagery, archly self-referential dialogue, a knowing playfulness but, in the final analysis, an emotional hollowness that no amount of style can compensate for.
To answer the inevitable question, no the video has not been taken from an NTSC source and forcibly changed into PAL; the image possesses neither the ghosting nor the blurriness that one finds with those kinds of transfers. It’s a little difficult to judge the video since OldBoy has an intentionally grainy and dour colour palette and though there’s already been three DVD incarnations of the movie in Korea DVD Beaver’s rather useful comparison shots were unfortunately unavailable at the time of writing. Sharpness and contrast seem good and black levels are as solid as could be hoped for but I’m hesitant to increase the score above 8, not least since I’m uncertain as to whether the colour conforms to Wook’s intention.
Luddite that I am, I’m unable to comment on the DTS but I’m unconvinced that it could be anything more than infinitesimally better than the Dolby Digital 5.1EX audio mix, which is nothing short of fantastic. The film’s score is richly accentuated by dramatic use of the surrounds whilst the thumping bass and pin-prick sharpness enable the sonically demanding moments to be excellently rendered. The stereo track is serviceable but flat by comparison.
Tartan have done themselves proud with the extras; almost no stone is left unturned and all those interviewed speak volubly and openly about the highs and lows of the film’s production.
Beyond the obligatory (and frankly pretty dismal) trailer, you’ll find three audio commentaries all of which have been culled, as far as I can tell, from the Korean Ultimate edition which also included a fourth commentary by ‘critic’ Harry Knowles that was conducted in English but has failed to appear on this edition, a great loss to be sure…
Park Chan Wook is present on all three of the commentary tracks, though somewhat surprisingly he comes across as very soft-spoken rather than the motor-mouth I’d anticipated. His solo info-fest is the most slowly paced of the commentaries but it’s thoughtful and intelligent – if not a little prone to the occasional repetition of already discussed detail. He’s more talkative on the commentary with OldBoy’s cinematographer and though I must admit to not having finished this particular track, the two appeared to have a good repartee but since the commentary was geared towards the technical aspects of the film my interest was immediately limited. The pick of the commentary litter is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Director and Cast track which despite not always being heavy on insight and occasionally sliding into banal observation, is mostly entertaining.
The second disc is divided into three sections: behind the scenes, Interviews and deleted scenes, all of which comprehensively detail the making of the film and offer plentiful insight into OldBoy’s plot ambiguities. If you don’t want your hypotheses dispelled, you may wish to view the features contained here sparingly.
The ten deleted scenes vary in quality, but are thankfully book-ended with clips from the movie to demonstrate where the scene would have been located in the final cut. Those wanting some confirmation about the meaning of the film’s ending would do well to check out ‘The Remaining Plot’ and ‘Tube Station: Reflection’, both of which shed new light upon OldBoy’s final moments (be sure to listen to Wook’s commentary on two said scenes for the full story though). Also of note is an alternative cut of Oh Dae-Su’s corridor brawl, though the remainder of the deleted footage is mostly superfluous.
The behind the scenes repository offers some interesting featurettes along with a few self-congratulatory and dull ones. Le Grand Prix at Cannes is a fairly prosaic look at the film’s victory at the Cannes film festival and The Cast remembers proves to be little more than an anodyne reflection upon the film’s genesis, with the expected assortment of obsequious interview snippets from all concerned. The Music Score is of greater use, since it offers a video commentary for selected moments of musical interest in the film, whilst the CGI featurette reveals the surprisingly subtle usage of computer graphics in the movie with a slew of comparison shots and ‘before and after’ footage. The Production Design featurette alights upon the intricacies of set design, clothing and, crucially, Oh Dae-Su’s hairstyle with a plethora of detail. The best of a solid bunch is Flashback, which involves a set of questions being posed to the cast by the director and some ‘Oldboy internet fans’, almost all of which yield answers that are actually well worth hearing.
It is, however, the interviews that are most deserving of your attention. The UK exclusive interview with Park Chan-Wook is a bit of a bore since Tartan elected to have a Korean translator relay the details of what Wook says rather than use subtitles, the consequence being that the interview soon becomes tiresomely slow not least because of the sense that much is being lost in translation. The director’s seven minute Q&A session with what appear to be a set of Korean film students crams in considerably more detail. There’s a lot of actorly verbiage on display in Choi Min-sik and Woo Ji-tae’s interviews though both maintains one’s interest despite the amount of fervent professionalism and dedication they relentlessly put forth. It’s pleasing to see that even the actors with comparatively small roles are given the opportunity to tell their stories and all provide diverting tidbits of information. The most rewarding interviews are those conducted with the film’s actresses, who cheerily discuss the difficulties of filming awkward sex scenes and the dubious folklore about the movie that has been proliferated by the film’s fanbase.
I wouldn’t contest that Asian cinema is currently perhaps the most innovative and daring in the world (its level of risk-taking is easily comparable to the 1960’s ‘New Wave’ in France) but this entry into the rapidly expanding canon of Eastern-Western crossovers failed to awe me. Fans should fear the American remake that has already been pencilled in for a 2006 release but though their treasured original has points of interest I’d advise all prospective viewers to take the mad hyperbole that surrounds the movie with a pinch of salt – if you want to see an effective and invigorating piece of Korean cinema, I’d recommend A tale of two sisters. I can, however, assure those wondering whether this is a worthwhile edition of the movie that Tartan has probably produced their best disc yet with this indulgent treatment of OldBoy.
Tarantino reportedly couldn’t sleep after his first viewing of OldBoy, I however shall rest easy.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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