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Monster in a box
A region 0 DVD review of the 2 Disc Special Edition of OLDBOY by Slarek
 
"Although I am no better than a beast, don't I have the right to live?"
Oh Dae-su

 

Oldboy was I film I really wanted to see some time before I got the chance to do so. It had two great hooks. The first was that it was directed by Park Chan-wook, whose Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance I had been bowled over by. The second – and this is so crucial and yet all too rare these days – is that even a cursory outline of the plot made it sound fascinating. This was a story that I wanted to see and hear played out on screen. Put those two factors together and you've got a damned good sell. By the time I got to see it a third hook had been added in the shape of phenomenal word-of-mouth. People were going nuts for the film and it won the Grand Prix at Cannes. And it was reaching a sizeable audience far beyond its home turf.

I would imagine that a good many of you have seen the film, or at the very least know of it. It has, as they say, something of a reputation, for its central performance, for its violence, for the dark places it dares to take the viewer. Mind you, those last two will hardly come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Park's previous film, the first installment of what has since become known as his Vengeance Trilogy. That film's gentle pace and offbeat comic moments left you unprepared for the grim twists that the plot later takes, and when the violence did come it was genuinely shocking, even though most of it was delivered just out of view. The same is true for Oldboy. Although notorious for its brutality, it's not what is shown that is so disturbing but how people behave, what they do to each other in the name of revenge.

So about that second hook...

One night, after a drunken spell at a police station, businessman and family man Oh Dae-su is kidnapped and imprisoned in a secure apartment with no windows and a manic-depressive décor. He doesn't know who his captors are and no-one talks to him to explain where he is or why he is there. He's given food through a slot in the door, is intermittently gassed and groomed by his unseen captors, and his only link with the outside world is a television set, which becomes both his teacher and substitute lover. One of the first things it informs him is that his wife has been murdered and that he is the prime suspect. Madness looms, but drugs are administered to keep him sane.

And he's held there for fifteen years.

His release into the outside world is both unexpected and mysterious. An unknowing courier then hands him some money and a mobile phone, which his nemesis uses to communicate with him. Desperate to know the man's identity, Dae-su is given just five days to uncover the reason for his imprisonment and enact the revenge he has been planning for years.

The dramatic pace change from Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is marked by an opening scene in which silhouetted Dae-su is dangling a terrified man by his tie over the edge of a tower block roof, set to a driving beat that suggests we have landed in the middle of an action sequence. He relates the story of his imprisonment to us and the dangling man, a nervous, would-be suicide whom he then leaves to carry out his planned death leap. He soon finds himself in a scrap with a gang of would-be hard-nuts and beats them silly. TV has taught him how to fight. Drawn to a particular restaurant, he meets young female sushi chef Mi-do and ends up back at her place, where his clumsy attempts at seduction are firmly rebuffed. At least for now.

If the plot hasn't grabbed your attention by now (and it bloody well should have) then Park's handling certainly will. This is dynamic direction with purpose, placing us in the thick of Dae-su's experience in a manner beyond the voice-over memories being related to the subject of his first post-incarceration human encounter. His despair, fury, confusion, and borderline insanity are vividly realised, his transformation into a machine of vengeance believably but economically portrayed, no mean feat when you realise the script was based on a Manga comic by Minegeshi Nobuaki and Garon Tsuchiya.

Although the post-imprisonment set-up may have a familiar ring – a manhunt with a time limit and few clues where to start – little about how this plays out is by the book. As Dae-su starts to connect the dots, we are never allowed to get one step ahead of his investigations, and thus share his surprise at the frequent and genre-busting plot turns. Nothing is laid out on a plate and there is a delicious economy to the filmmaking that allows Park to cram the screen with incident and character detail and shift things along at a pace that requires your full attention to follow. Dae-su's two early suicide attempts, for example, are represented by glass from a broken mirror and a top-shot of Dae-su being dragged across the floor – you have to be alert to spot the bleeding wrist and fresh bloodstain on the floor, at least on a TV screen.

The film shares with Mr. Vengeance an ability to repeatedly catch the audience out, and a storyline and approach that robs revenge of its cinematically traditional cathartic pleasures. Where the two films part company is in their technique, with the static, almost observational approach of the earlier work replaced by drifting camera movements and an accelerated editing style, moving the narrative along at a speed that rivals any modern Hollywood thriller but with an intelligence, purpose and daring that leaves them standing. That's not to say the American influence is not there – the film's postmodernist ticks have their routes in US independent cinema and have no doubt contributed to its breakthrough international appeal.

Memorable scenes follow in rapid succession, the most striking of which has to be Dea-su's ferocious, hammer-swinging corridor battle with a large group of heavies, all done in a single, two-and-a-half-minute sideways-on long shot, a brilliantly choreographed and yet gruellingly realistic fury-fired fight for survival. Mind you, most viewers tend to wince at the vivid memory of the most horrible tooth torture scene since Marathon Man, and the image of Dae-su chewing away at a live squid as its tentacles cling to his face and hand is one that has haunted every Japanese seafood experience I have had since.

The performers all shine, but as Oh Dae-su, Choi Min-sik is just stupendous, his stony-faced detachment when inflicting hurt with a hammer giving way to heart-rending despair and a manic explosion of emotional desperation in a climax that is almost as draining to watch as it clearly was to perform. This should not overshadow the very considerable contributions of co-stars Lee Woo-jin and Kang Hye-jeong as Yu Ji-Tae and Mi-do respectively, Lee's playful malevolence in particular adding to the frustration factor of Dae-su's quest. And special mention should go to Kim Byeong-ok, who as the white-haired bodyguard Mr. Han manages to suggest with very little that behind his unhurried cool lies a creature capable to taking out a pride of lions with a single blow.

It's not hard to see why Oldboy struck a particular chord with western film fans. It has the tonal and visual darkness of Se7en-era David Fincher and the effortless cool of pre-Jackie Brown Tarantino – it's no surprise that Tarantino was head of the Cannes jury that awarded the film the Grand Prix. Having been so stricken by Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, I found myself initially not quite as dazzled by Oldboy, preferring the first film's steely calm to the more crowd-pleasing kinetic approach of its follow-on. But several viewings in I happily regard the two films as artistic equals, brothers in a cause that take alternative approaches to similar narrative goals, both fiercely original, both surprising and inventive in ways that demonstrate just why Korean cinema is being held in such high regard, and both thematically darker than anything currently escaping from studios in the West. Oldboy is powerful, exciting cinema, and by reaching beyond its home turf and finding a sizeable cult audience around the world, could just be the most important Korean film of recent years.

sound and vision

Anamorphic 2.35:1 and, unlike Tartan's discs of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance, a PAL original rather than an NTSC transfer. Picture quality is good within the restrictions imposed on it by the bleach bypass process used in the developing stage, which knocks detail out of the whites, giving them an overexposed, almost digital look. The dominance of green-browns in many scenes is coped with well, and detail is consistently good.

The three soundtracks on offer are all effective in their way – the stereo 2.0 track has nice clarity and separation, the Dolby 5.1 EX surround track uses the surrounds well and adds a fullness and depth to the music, but switch to the DTS-ES surround 6.1 after having either of these tracks on loud and you're likely to lose a window. For clarity, volume and punch, this is definitely the winner. Due to the subtitle requirements of the commentary track, you can only switch audio tracks from the audio options menu, not as the film is playing.

extra features

Commentary by Director Park Chan-wook
The first of three commentary tracks – all conducted in Korean with English subtitles – is a solo run for the director and Park has plenty to say, with the result that there's hardly a pause here. There's a nice mix of technical and background information with plenty of sometimes anecdotal asides, although there's also a some pointing out of the obvious. Of particular interest is the version prepared for TV, which simply cannot deliver the punch the original cut does, and the director's original intention to make the imprisonment sequence "disgustingly long."

Director and Cinematographer Commentary
I was expecting some serious duplication of Park's solo commentary here, but Park and cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon manage to cover a great deal of new ground, including detail on the bleach bypass process used for the film and the techniques of 'pulling' and digital colouration. Again this is a chatty and consistently interesting track laced with dry humour – one of my favourite bits has Chung expressing his preference for camera movements because he feels he is doing his job when the camera is in motion. "Sometimes," he says, "I nod off during the static shots."

Director and Cast Commentary
The least technical and most light-hearted of the three commentaries is nonetheless an enjoyable listen. Park is joined here by lead players Choi Min-sik, Yu Ji-tae and Gang Hye-jung, who eat sushi and engage in some lively banter, mixing memories of the shoot and comments on scenes with the odd bit of fun poking and even some technical details not covered in the other two commentaries, including info on a small change made to the soundtrack for the DVD release of the film.

Original Theatrical Trailer (1:31)
A UK trailer and rather a neat one, with plenty of tantalising snippets but no serious spoilers.

The extra features on disc 2 are divided into three categories.
 
Behind the Scenes

Flashback (22:57)
Fans of the film set questions that the actors and director respond to, though not in the same location as each other. The actors and Park Chan-wook also get to ask each other a couple of questions. There is some behind-the-scenes footage here and a brief glimpse of Gang Hye-jung's audition. My favourite Park quote of the piece: "People say a director's pleasure comes from tormenting the performers, and the biggest pleasure comes when you torment the big stars."

The Cast Remembers (10:58)
I'm sorry, the cast? They barely get a look-in here, as Park, producer Lim Seung-yong and director of photography Chung Chung-hoon talk about various aspects of the production, including the bleach bypass process which was – no surprises here – influenced by the look of Se7en.

Production Design (13:14)
The production and costume designers discuss the look of the film, including the use of repeating patterns, the design of Dae-su's hair and the influence of American Psycho on Lee Woo-jin's wardrobe.

CGI Featurette (7:10)
FX technical director Chung Sung-jin takes you through stages of creating computer ants and arms, Mi-do's ant fantasy, digital colour correction and the digital knife in the corridor fight, all of which is damned interesting.

The Music Score (16:47)
Park and the film's musical director Cho Young-wook, old friends and regular collaborators, discuss the shaping of the score and then provide a commentary track on a number of scenes that have been stripped of all sound but the score used, taking you through the film-title named soundtrack. A great extra.

Le Grand Prix at Cannes (8:51)
Members of the crew and cast talk about going to Cannes and winning the Grand Prix, and there is footage of them at the festival and the screening, which gets some serious applause. There's no footage of the award win, though, which is s shame. A rights issue, no doubt.

Interviews

An intimidating list presents itself when you select this page, but most of the actor interviews are quite brief and cover sometimes expected but still interesting ground. The first two with Park Chan-wook are a little more substantial.

Tartan Exclusive director interview by Mark Salisbury (22:13)
A 22 minute interview that is actually only about 11 minutes, as Park gives his answers in Korean and they are then translated for us into English by an interpreter sitting beside him. Some unsurprising questions, but Park's response to why he is drawn to revenge stories is good, and his suggestion that the current popularity of Korean cinema is partly down to declining standards elsewhere struck a chord.

Park Chan-wook (7:01)
The director answers questions to a group of what looks like students in a screening theatre the day before he goes to Cannes, and reveals, amongst other things, that his directing style is most influenced by Kafka. A particularly nice moment has him wonder why people watch mindless films – "If you want a peaceful rest," he suggests, "have a bath. Why go to the cinema?" I could have done with more of this.

Tsuchiya Garon (2:18)
Co-creator of the original manga is interviewed by phone and was clearly impressed with the film. His interview does includes shots of the comic.

The actor interviews are all quite brief. A busy interview with Choi Min-sik (6:16) covers quite a bit of ground, a fair of amount of which you won't find elsewhere on the disc. It's all interesting and Choi speaks with clear passion. Yoo Ji-Tae (3:55) talks about his character and suggests one thing he would have changed if he were playing the role again. Kang Hye-jung (4:00) discusses landing the role of Mi-do and key aspects of the character and playing her on screen, including her ease at playing a sex scene. Yoon Jin-seo (3:37) covers the preparation for her role as Soo-ah and training with Choi Min-sik, who was clearly a mentor to her. Chi Dae-han (3:18) discusses his character (Joo-hwan) and his relationship with Oh Dae-su, but also his on-set relationship with Choi Min-sik, plus the bruising he takes when Yoo Ji-Tae got a bit over zealous with his performance (it shows on screen, too). Kim Byoung-ok (2:35) briefly chats about his role as one of the coolest screen bodyguards ever, and making the transition from stage to his first film role. Oh Dal-soo (2:38) unsurprisingly covers being the victim in the tooth torture scene and also touches on his previous work with Park. Oh Kwang-Rok (2:59) explains how he landed the role of the suicide man (Park chips in here, too, as he does in Oh Dai-su's piece), his interpretation of the character and what it's like for an acrophobic to be dangled over the edge of a high building. Finally Lee Seung-ja (2:43) gives us her take on her role as hypnotist Hyung-ja and her supposedly ghostly appearance at the end.

Deleted Scenes, all with optional commentary

Oh Dae-Su (10:54)
Tantalisingly mentioned on the Director and Cinematographer's Commentary, this is Oh Dae-su's drunken police station visit in close to its entirety, a 10 minute improvisation by Choi Min-sik that the other actors have to respond to. And it's a riot, a minor comic tour-de-force that is considerably edited down for the film (appropriately and effectively so) but a delight to enjoy as a whole. On the commentary, Park suggests he doesn't like doing audio commentaries or showing deleted scenes, which he finds embarrassing. Doing a commentary on deleted scenes is thus doubly painful. Nonetheless, he does a good job on this, and provides some interesting backstage tidbits and information of the scene's construction, including Choi's improvisations.

Day One (2:45)
The original start of Oh Dae-su's confinement, waking up in bed. An interesting scene, but the actual edit, where we encounter him three months in, works so much better. Park regrets shooting this scene and claims to be surprised at his utter stupidity for doing so.

Japanese Restaurant (0:33)
A minor alteration in original edit.

Fight With the Guards (1:15)
Multi-angle, handheld camera version of fight in corridor. Nowhere near as impressive as actual shot used.

Kiss (1:42)
Censorship friendly replacement for hotel room sex scene, which was actually used version shown on Korean TV. Passionate, but would rob the film of its final sucker punch.

The Lovers 1 (1:05)
Post-coital moment that preceded the film's only really happy and tender exchange.

The Lovers 2 (1:19)
Alternate take on above.

Woo-jin's Preparation (1:56)
Woo-jin rehearsing lines he will say to Oh Dae-su later, intercut with visit to hair salon.

The Remaining Plot (1:42)
Woo-jin in shopping mall with hypnotist, planning for the future.

Tube Station: Reflection (1:01)
Continuation of above. The last line, which is really important, is untranslated.

summary

This is one that Tartan got right first time. A great movie, well presented and with a generous selection of very decent extras. So if you have this, why would you think of buying it again as part of the Vengeance Trilogy Box Set? Ah, well there may be, just may be, one very convincing reason.

To read the review of the Vengeance Trilogy version, click here.

Oldboy
2 Disc Special Edition

South Korea 2003
115 mins
director
Park Chan-wook
starring
Choi Min-sik
Yoo Ji-Tae
Kang Hye-jung
Yoon Jin-seo
Chi Dae-han
Kim Byoung-ok
Oh Dal-soo

DVD details
region 0
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 EX surround
DTS-ES 6.1 surround
languages
Korean
subtitles .
English
extras
Director's commentary
Director and cinematographer commentary
Director and cast comemntary
Questions featurette
Cast remembers featurette
Production design featurette
CGI featurette
Music featurette
Cannes featurette
Cast and crew interviews
Deleted scenes
Trailer
distributor
Tartan
release date
28 February 2005
review posted
10 January 2007

Related reviews:
Oldboy (Vengeance Trilogy edition)
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Vengeance Trilogy edition)
Lady Vengeance
Lady Vengeance (Vengeance Trilogy edition)

See all of Slarek's reviews