Release: 25th January 2020
Format: BR / DVD
A man, held captive for no apparent reason for years, is given a cell phone, money and expensive clothes and released. Unless he finds out the identity of his captor, an even worse fate awaits him.
Your reaction to Oldboy rests largely on your view of whether filmmakers tell stories because they like them or because they want to. If you are in the former camp, then Oldboy will represent a ghoulish nihilism that punishes not only the characters but the viewer; a platter of visceral brutality and unflinching cruelty with no apparent purpose but to be acrimonious. For those in the other camp, here lies a tragic tale worthy of the Greeks. A homogony of comedy, heartbreak and honest violence. For this latter group, Chan-Wook Park serves as a purveyor of morals. His message: vengeance is not only messy, but it also generates monsters and victims in equal measure.
Even now, Oldboy seems to be a paradoxical time capsule of its own making. Some things have not dated well (the treatment of Mi-Do is reprehensible across the board), while the central conceit that everyone is awful, allows the more abhorrent behaviours to comment on themselves. The turn of the century fashion carbon dates Oldboy is a way that seems to be very specific to films of this period, yet its themes of perceived reality, isolation and self-destructive culpability seem tailor made for the Trump/Brexit-era. The rest: all of the stuff around incest, the altering of one’s appearance, and ‘tasks’, seem straight out of ancient mythology (something that Park apparently found inspiration in). So, Oldboy serves to be an odd viewing experience, now. At once frustratingly opaque; throwing a mixture of rich substance and non sequiturs; yet utterly intoxicating, this is like a cinematic cheeseburger made with really good meat and some delicious but unusual toppings. Hardly fine dining, but well worth the meal.
Oldboy feels very much like a film from a very specific period in time and with a very specific agenda in mind; to disrupt and disturb. Yet, it is much more than its peers of the time. Many might pair it with, say, Takashi Miike’s ‘Audition’, Kinji Fukasaku’s ‘Battle Royale’ or even Darren Arrenofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream’, but the truth is that Oldboy feels more like a fable. A bedtime story that adults tell each other about the dangers of losing oneself into vengeance. It is a theme Park would repeat three times during his vengeance trilogy but seems to be the one that resonates the most.
There have been multiple releases of Oldboy over the years, but Arrow are the first to bring out a 4K scan on UHD. It is important to contextualise the production of Oldboy in that it was not ever expected to be a grand piece of cinema and was made on an extremely modest budget. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that this 4K presentation is hardly going to make it to the pantheon of immaculate prints. There are moments when grain is almost unbearable, and despite its prominent neon artwork, colours look unreliably flat at times. But thankfully, these moments are rare, and what we end up with is a shiny new version of the picture. Night scenes have an added depth to them, and the odd pop of extreme colour (a purple umbrella, a blue tracksuit) all serve to immortalise the film’s graphic novel origins. The soundtrack is well preserved, with what seems to be a delightfully thick uptick in the sound effects track (cue ‘hammer scene’). So, for fans of the film, this is likely to be the premium choice for you.
Since it took Cannes by storm in 2004, Oldboy has lived with a cult following that helped turn a Western subculture driven by spotty teen fandom slowly drip-fed with Asian cinema, into the esteem of films like Parasite winning Best Picture at the 2020 Oscars. For all of its extreme obsessions and superfluous aesthetic flourishes, Oldboy took the b-movie troupe of Western revenge narratives and blow it wide open in a way that could only come from Eastern sensibilities. Oldboy helped to legitimise Korean cinema in the eyes of the Western world in a way that Christopher Nolan’s Batman legitimised comic book films to a point of them being a multi-billion-dollar industry. It may not be the single most important film in Korean film history, but for most, Oldboy remains one of the most significant. Not bad for a movie about a guy whose biggest achievement is eating a live octopus.
Film Grade: B
The additional disc, a feature length documentary ‘Old Days’, was not available at the time of review, but has previously been released by Arrow. The accompanying UHD features on the main discs are a mixture of archive materials and a recently filmed interview with Tony Rayns; a man who is basically the pub quiz expert for Korean cinema night. The true jewel in the crown is an innocuous Q&A with Chan-Wook Park. An affable and open filmmaker, he offers up a number of interesting facts about the film and its origins.
Special Features Grade: B-
Like its famous scene, Oldboy remains a hammer to the head for all who view it. Now, in 4K, it just looks and sounds that extra bit gritty.