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Oldboy (2004)

Old Boy

End of confrontation, one must die.

Rating: 9/10

Running Time: 120 minutes

UK Certificate: 18


Revenge is a theme as old as western literature itself, but in the aftermath of 9/11 it has come under renewed cinematic scrutiny. Recently we have had the ironic postmodernism of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill volumes, the reactionary blood-letting of Jonathan Hensleigh’s ‘The Punisher’ and Tony Scott’s Man on Fire, and the environmentalist insanity of Korean director Jang Jun-hwan’s Save the Green Planet! – but it is another South Korean film made just before all of these, Park Chan-wook ’s ‘Oldboy’, that offers the viewer the most thoroughgoing examination of vengeance seen since Ichi the Killer, while still managing to be a riotously unhinged black comedy, an engagingly twisted thriller and a horrific family tragedy.

Just released from police custody for drunk and disorderly behaviour on his own baby daughter’s birthday, all-round arsehole Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is abducted on the street, and wakes to find himself in a drab improvised prison cell, with only a television for company, and no idea why he is there. Still imprisoned a full year later, he learns from the TV news that his wife has just been murdered (and that the police suspect Oh himself, now a missing person) – but it is only after a full fifteen years of solitary confinement that Oh is finally released, dazed, crazed and demonically driven by a determination to find out who did this to him and why, and to wreak the vengeance that he has had so long to contemplate. Helped by the attractive Mido (Gang Hye-jung), a young sushi chef whom he recognizes from her appearances on television, Oh sets out to track down his tormentors, but when he is challenged by a mysterious man (Yoo Ji-tae) to work out who he is in five days or else Mido will be killed, Oh learns that he is not the only one with revenge on his mind, and that some things are better forgotten.

Park Chan-wook is no stranger to the dynamics of revenge, having already explored them in his relentlessly downbeat ‘Sympathy for Mr Vengeance’ (2002), which also featured two men circling one another for a short-lived satisfaction destined to ensnare innocent outsiders. Yet ‘Oldboy’ is by far the more outlandish, and the funnier of the two films, and even features a redemptive, almost romantic ending (lovers arm-in-arm before a sublime mountainscape) – albeit one that leaves a decidedly unsavoury aftertaste. With its beautiful visual style, endless unpredictability, bold use of colour filters, and a main character who sports one of the most impressive shocks of hair since ‘Eraserhead’, ‘Oldboy’ is a tour-de-force of vibrant filmmaking from start to finish, manipulating the viewer like a master hypnotist, before revealing its final, awful dilemma – oh, and if revenge really is a dish best served cold, ‘Oldboy’ proves once and for all that that dish is live, squirming octopus.

It's Got: A protracted attempt to tunnel out of a cell using a single chopstick; ant hallucinations; distinctive dumplings; an octopus swallowed live; Oedipal underpinnings; one of the most perversely symmetrical acts of revenge ever imagined; a character who cuts out his own tongue (à la ‘Ichi the Killer’); a man’s struggle to remember his past depicted as his pursuit of his younger self through an Escher-like maze of staircases and hallways; and the spectacle of Oh, armed only with a hammer, taking on a vast gang in the confines of a very narrow corridor.

It Needs: To be seen to be believed.

DVD Extras Disc One: Anamorphic 2.35:1; choice of Dolby digital 2.0/Dolby digital-EX 5.1 Surround/DTS-ES digital surround 6.1; optional English subtitles; scene selection; original theatrical trailer; full audio commentary 1 (Korean language, English subtitles) with director/co-writer Park Chan-wook affably describing the thinking behind each scene, the motivation of the characters, the origin of the names on Oh Dae-su’s long list of suspects (they are all filmmakers with whom Chan-wook had previously worked), the influence of renaissance painting on the corridor fight sequence and of ‘Dressed to Kill’ on the editing of the school sequence, and his desire to make the ending “as unclear as possible…an unhappy happy ending or a happy unhappy ending”; full audio commentary 2 (Korean language, English subtitles) with Park Chan-wook and DOP Chung Chung-hoon on the use of a bleach bypass process and green filters, on the 17 takes required to shoot the corridor scene, on restricting themselves mostly to very wide shots or close-ups, on occasional CGI touch-ups and colour corrections, and on the snow in the final sequence (which had to be collected and then poured from above by the crew); full audio commentary 3 (Korean language, English subtitles) with Park Chan-wook and actors Choi Min-sik, Yu Ji-tae and Kang Hye-jung all giggling away (“the viewer will think we’re silly people”) while discussing Min-sik’s flatulence and bad breath, the 30 hours without rest it took to film the sushi bar sequence, the embarrassment of everyone except Hye-jung while shooting the sex scene, Ji-tae’s crowd-pleasing posterior, and the existence of a short film called ‘Memories of Oldboy’ which combines ‘Memories of Murder’ with ‘Oldboy’. Disc Two: ‘Flashback’ (23min) Chan-wook, Hye-jung, Min-sik, Ji-tae answer questions from each other and from members of the ‘Oldboy’ fanclub about the film; ‘The Cast Remembers’ (11min) producer Im Seung-yong on securing Chan-wook and Min-sik for an adaptation of the Japanese manga, Chung-hoon on the influence of ‘Se7en’ on the film’s bleached, sickly look; ‘Production Design’ (13min) Son Chong-hee on Oh Dae-su’s hairstyle (which Chan-wook says was “the starting point of the look of the film”) and Cho Sang-gyung on the costumes (Ji-tae’s was inspired by ‘American Psycho’), wallpaper and carefully coded pattern motifs in the film; ‘CGI featurette’ (7min) FX technical director Chung Sung-jin on Dae-su’s and Mido’s ant fantasies, the corridor fight sequence (the knife in Dae-su’s back was painstakingly added by computer), colour correction in the school flashbacks, the blending of two shots to create an impossibly deep focus, and the arduous frame-by-frame removal of foam from the dam water; ‘The Music Score’ (17min) Chan-wook and Cho Young-wook comment on their inspiration and intention for the different musical themes (each named after their favourite films); ‘Le Grand Prix at Cannes’ (9min) Chan-wook, Min-sik, Ji-tae, Hye-Jung, Young-wook and Seung-yong reminisce about their success at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival; Tartan exclusive interview with Chan-wook by Mark Salisbury (22min) which, annoyingly, is presented complete with an interpreter when it might better have been edited to half the length and subtitled – still, entertaining for its revelation that the octopus sequence had to be shot four times (with Min-sik, a buddhist, apologising to each octopus); there are also shorter interviews with Chan-wook (7min), with author of the original Japanese manga Tsuchiya Garon (2min), with actors Min-sik (6min), Ji-tae (4min), Hye-jung (4min), Yoon Jin-seo (4min), Ji Dae-han (3min), Kim Byoung-ok (3min), Oh Dal-soo (3min), Oh Kwang-rok (3min) and Lee Seun-shin (3min); 10 deleted scenes (24min), with optional director’s commentary, including a long and hilarious improvised sequence of Oh Dae-su at the police station, a glimpse of the corridor fight sequence as originally conceived (i.e. violently cut-up). DVD Extras Rating: 10/10


Forget ‘The Punisher’ and ‘Man on Fire’ – this mesmerising revenger’s tragicomedy shows just how far-reaching the tentacles of mad vengeance can be.