A critically-acclaimed Korean crime drama that won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2004, 'Oldboy' doesn't just push limits, it embraces entirely new cinematic taboos with twisted inhibition. Viewers with a history of heart trouble, migraines, neck or back trouble, or those who are pregnant should proceed with caution.
An ordinary businessman named Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) wakes up from a drunken stupor to discover that he's been placed inside an impenetrable cell; he has no direct contact with the outside world and has no idea why he's been imprisoned. For fifteen years, he rots away inside this strange dungeon, honing his body and training his mind until he becomes a grizzled warrior obsessed with revenge. When he's inexplicably freed, he hits the streets to find whoever was responsible for locking him away. As his search begins, he meets a young girl named Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong) and develops an instant bond. When she's kidnapped by the man who imprisoned him, Oh Dae-su finally meets the object of his hatred -- a mysterious man named Woo-jin (Yu Ji-tae). Woo-jin tells Oh Dae-su he must discover the reasons behind his incarceration or Mi-do will die.
So begins one of the most abnormal and fantastic films I've ever encountered. As the second entry in director Park Chan-wook's "Revenge Trilogy," 'Oldboy' works well within the framework of its two bookends. While 'Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance' and 'Lady Vengeance' focus on singular revenge scenarios, 'Oldboy' examines the head-on collision between two types of rage -- Oh Dae-su is intentionally wronged by his unseen adversary and seeks immediate physical revenge, whereas Lee Woo-jin has been unintentionally wronged by Oh Dae-su and has exerted calculated psychological revenge. The two competing scenarios open up a complex set of themes and ideas for the director to explore -- the perseverance of anger, the illogical nature of our emotions, and the collateral damage that affects other people caught in the warpath of wrath.
'Oldboy' is probably best viewed as a violent morality tale in which the main characters are at the mercy of their disturbing obsessions. It isn't a revenge fantasy per se, but rather a warning about the nature of vengeance and its ability to warp a person's outlook. To this end, Chan-wook uses extreme imagery and manga-inspired gore to grab his audience's attention, while at the same time relying on a tight script and meticulous character development to sell the validity of a series of extraordinary events. Even "ordinary" scenes contain bizarre and often disturbing imagery, including swarming ants, gouged eyes, stark nudity, a nightmarish hotel room, incest, and the actual consumption of a living octopus.
The film itself is anchored by a group of unflinching (and arguably Oscar-worthy) performances. Min-sik Choi is particularly impressive as he transforms Oh Dae-su from a desperate drunkard into a hardened killing machine. His expressions are laced with subtle tics that reveal his character's thoughts long before he puts them into action. Likewise, Kang Hye-jeong doesn't just whimper through her role as the damsel in distress, she genuinely embraces the fear that would accompany the absurdity of her situation. In all, the performers sell what might otherwise be an absurd story at every level.
I should warn those who haven't yet seen 'Oldboy' to brace themselves for an unusal ending. The last confrontation has a logical climax, but takes a sharp turn that some viewers may not find satisfying. Likewise, Chan-wook has made it clear he wants his audience to determine the ending -- as such, the last scene is intentionally ambiguous and may leave some viewers shaking their heads. For my own part, I can't imagine a more perfect denouement to a film that so carefully balances sorrow, revenge and regret.
I could continue raving about 'Oldboy' until I fell asleep from exhaustion, but doing so would likely reveal too many of this film's secrets. Newcomers should have a chance to experience it all for the first time. I can't guarantee that you'll like 'Oldboy' as much as I did, but you'll undoubtedly experience something unlike anything you've seen before. Chan-wook's head-trip revenge epic is one of the most sinister, unique, and revelatory flicks ever committed to celluloid.
Not unlike the film itself, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer on this Blu-ray edition of 'Oldboy' is tough to classify. While it looks leaps and bounds better than any previous DVD presentation of the film, it has very specific visual problems that may or may not have been intended by the director. First, a quick history. 'Oldboy' has been available domestically in three standard DVDs: a Korean Starmax edition (which includes the only transfer that's been officially approved by the director), a basic release from Tartan, and a 3-disc Collector's Tin from Tartan. Each of these earlier DVD releases have been plagued by pixelation, artifacting, and digital noise. The transfer available in the Tartan Collector's Tin looks technically superior to the other two, but has noticeable color discrepancies when compared to the director-approved transfer on the Starmax release.
Taking all of that into account, this Blu-ray transfer certainly has a lot going for it. After several side by side comparisons, I believe this transfer is most likely an upgraded version of the Starmax edition. The color palette leans toward greens and reds more often than the Tartan DVD releases, but primaries are bold and healthy when the director wants them to be. This new transfer boasts a phenomenal boost in clarity and fine detail that puts the pixelated Collector's Tin transfer to shame. Overall shadow delineation is better and the artifacting that cluttered darker scenes on the DVDs is gone. The print is in great shape, as well -- I didn't catch any blemishes or apparent edge enhancement in the picture. This transfer may not have the same high-def sheen as other top tier Blu-ray releases, but it pays considerable respect to the director and his vision.
On the not-so-bright-side, there are some obvious inconsistencies, many of which can be attributed to the souce. Among them, heavy grain spikes wildly throughout the film, digital noise still pops up in the darkness, and quite a few shots are painfully soft. Some darker scenes just don't have the three-dimensional pop that daytime exterior shots exhibit -- black levels range from inky to problematic, contrast levels occasionally waver, and detail is sometimes at the mercy of low lighting. As it stands, key moments (like the infamous hallway hammer battle) lack the clarity I longed to find on my first high definition trip to Oh Dae-su's world.
The only persistent oddity with the transfer is a slight image wobble -- this specific frame jitter was absent from both Tartan DVDs, but appeared on the Chan-wook approved Korean DVD. That being said, considering the film opens on a shaking hand, focuses on themes of instability, and studies a man coming unhinged (and another that's already survived his own madness), I couldn't help but wonder if this wobble might have been an intentional effect employed by the director to further unsettle his audience.
All in all, the picture quality on this Blu-ray edition of 'Oldboy' is a substantial improvement over other DVD editions and will certainly please fans familiar with the film. Still, the transfer is host to several inconsistencies that unfortunately prevent it from being an excellent visual addition to the Blu-ray catalog.
This Blu-ray edition of 'Oldboy' features several audio options. In the film's original Korean language, we get a powerful DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround track (the core bitrate of which is 768 kbps rather than the usual 1.5 Mbps), a decent Dolby Digital-EX 5.1 surround mix (640 kbps), and a basic Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track (224 kbps). For fans of English dubs, Tartan offers Dolby Digital 5.1 surround (448 kbps) and Dolby Stereo (224 kbps). For the purposes of this review, I'll mostly be discussing the main attraction -- the Korean DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix.
'Oldboy' already sounded great on the Collector's Tin DVD, but this Blu-ray mix is an tenacious, bass-rumbling revelation. Dynamics are impressive to say the least, and the LFE channel literally shook the floor of my home theater. Each gunshot, face smash, and weapon thump hits with a palpable impact and the pulsing soundtrack regularly increases the authority of intense scenes. Treble tones are solid, dialogue is clear, and the soundscape is nicely prioritized. There isn't a scene that goes by that doesn't showcase the film's excellent sound design -- acoustics are convincing, ambiance establishes a constant presence, and each channel is used to full effect. Even better, the track uses the rear channels aggressively to create an immersive soundfield that places the listener in the middle of a living, breathing world.
The only hiccup in this package is the English dub -- the general sound mix is muffled compared to the DTS-HD MA track and the dialogue seems overly disjointed from the rest of the soundfield (a problem I was surprised to find on such a high profile release). Still, fans who watch the film with subtitles will be ecstatic to hear 'Oldboy' blasting through their speakers. It makes for an impressive audio demo that will quickly wow everyone in the room.
This Blu-ray edition of 'Oldboy' includes a large portion of the special features released with the 3-disc Tartan Collector's Tin DVD. MIA from that earlier edition are an amazing 3-hour documentary, a 200 page graphic novel, and a film cell. Still, if I didn't happen to know there was a massive documentary missing, there's nothing about this package that seems incomplete.
'Oldboy' is a challenging film filled with bizarre imagery, disturbing developments, and heart chilling violence. It also features a deep exploration of vengeance and rage that will leave your head spinning for days. This Blu-ray edition features a decent transfer that looks much better than its standard DVD releases, an amazing DTS-HD Master Audio track, and a lengthy list of exhaustive supplements. I wish the picture wasn't hindered by its source, but still this release is a cinch to recommend to fans of Korean film, the horror genre, and boundary-pushing cinema.