I'm a big fan of Asian cinema and have been for a long time. They do love working with film and can produce some really intelligent and passionate talent who can flourish without the Studio influence and control we see in Hollywood.
I'd heard much about Oldboy as being one of the best of Asian cinema and I can definitely say that after seeing it those voices weren't wrong.
Oldboy begins with a typical Hitchcock style story. A man is imprisoned for 15 years with no understanding of why or, during his incarceration, any idea of how long. Then suddenly he is free and his journey begins.
The style in this film just pours out of the screen. Yet they don't overpower and dominate the movie as they would in Hollywood, they look as integral to the story as do the actors and the dialogue. They aren't treated as a big moment but viewed as a whole with the rest of the film. There are some really nice touches throughout the movie, in particular the movement between scenes, the corridor fight or the beautifully shot snow scene all really stand out for me.
That brings me nicely onto the action topic. Asian film, "must be lots of martial arts" I hear some of you non-converts shout. Not at all. The action and fighting is some of the most realistic I've seen in a movie. People go down when they are hit, and when hit hard they stay down. That is except Oldboy himself, fuelled by fifteen years of revenge and hatred, he is allowed a but more leeway. Yet that doesn't stop the action being beautifully choreographed and put together.
In particular the fight scene in the corridor shows the beauty and care placed into the fight scene. It takes place in a long corridor with the camera panning back and forth following the action as Oldboy, successfully and realistically, fights approximately fifteen men. The action frequently slows and stops, and with no real moments where you are pulled back out of the movie thinking you are watching the impossible.
Some of the scenes are tough to watch, not because they are all gruesome, but because Asian filmmakers have the balls to push the audience and make them feel something more than the average cinema experience. To feel something, much like the main character. So scenes are uncomfortable or uneasy because you're feeling the same as the characters.
The live sushi moment is stunning to watch, and conjured up some strange emotions in me, I'm still not sure how I feel about it. The torture scenes are arduous but so real and fear inducing. Perhaps the most shocking and emotionally strong moments are saved for the latter half of the film. Don't be concerned though, these aren't vile in any way, they just make you feel incredibly uncomfortable and very uneasy.
To me, that is what cinema is all about, even all art. It's about making you feel something, not sitting in a darkened room letting images and story wash over you then disappearing for your dinner and a chat about the weather. You want, and need, to be pulled into the movie, to feel and empathise with the characters, forget about the world around you and all the other people and their lives, and finally come away with the haunting of those feelings. The movie should continue on in your mind and pop up in conversations, provoking thoughts and discussion, otherwise you've wasted your time and money. Oldboy satisfies that to perfection.
Unfortunately I can't really go into the story, not that I do much in reviews anyway, but in the case of Oldboy it really does give far too much away even touching on it. Check out the IMDB listing if you really want, however just trust me, it's a superb story and you don't want to know anything more about it beforehand. For the last twenty minutes or so you will be astounded and the twists and turns keep coming right up to the very end.
It's also quite a moving story and takes on what exactly makes a person and defines who they are and the labels they carry through their lives. Most of all though it's about revenge and how unfulfilling, all consuming and empty it can make you feel.
The actors are really good across the whole movie, but it is the leads that really excel. Min-sik Choi is utterly believeable and gives such a powerful performance. His acting coupled with the visual style will have you holding your breath at times. The female lead Hye-jeong Kang and the protagonist Ji-tae Yu also offer excellent performances. The range of emotion that the character Woo-jin Lee has to go through is enormous, and Yu performs them brilliantly, while Kang plays a restrained, controlled and tortured mind to perfection. There is a real depth to these characters, and they are brought to life by these three wonderful actors.
This movie is an excellent example of what cinema can be, and once again the lesson comes from outwith Hollywood, I just wish they would sit up and listen in class. The movie is not any single scene, but the sum of it's wonderful set pieces, beautiful style, imaginative camera work, truly wonderful performances from all the leads, and a stunning story. You have to see this movie.
Does the DVD rise up to the bar that the movie has set? Without a doubt. The first commentary on disc one is solely from the Director, and it's the most focused and fact filled commentary I've ever heard. He talks about his filming styles, the scenes that were decided on the spot, edits, use of colour, why controversial scenes are the way they are, etc, etc. It's a technically rich commentary, and wholly fulfilling for those who are interested in the art of film making.
The second audio commentary, and yes we're still on the first disc here, is with the Director and Cinematographer. Together you get a further indepth view of the movie analysing and discussing the development process of bleach bypass, an almost scene by scene discussion of the lenses used and camera positioning, anecdotes of the filming, why scenes were shot a certain way and lit, and lot's more. You even get an interesting insight into why the DVD appears to be the strongest medium to watch the movie on, with the Cinema being a close second. Together with the first commentary this is probably the most insightful and comprehensive look into a movie I've ever seen, and what's more it's genuinely fascinating.
It's therefore quite disappointing to hear the final audio commentary, still on the first disc, which has the Director and a few of the main cast. Although comparing it with commentaries from other DVD's you'd be impressed, when placed alongside the first two commentaries it seems weak. The actors don't talk about their acting too much, and you can really hear that the Director is carrying the commentary, returning to some of the comments he's already made in the other commentaries. Still, it's funny in places, the cast seem like they are having a good laugh, so it's not terrible to listen to. However there are some interesting comments regarding the Cannes screening, and in particular Tarantino's reaction at the closing scenes.
Something in general about the commentaries are the subtitles, there's a really good point and a really bad point about them. Good point first, they are really well translated and come across as natural English, it's very easy to follow them and whether it's deliberate or not, there are many linguistic nuances that make you think you're listening to an English based commentary. So often subtitles are carried across poorly or incorrectly, however not in this case it appears. Although I wouldn't know if it was what they were saying!
The bad point of the subtitles is that when the commentary goes quiet the subtitle of the actual movie displays. This makes things very confusing as you have to be pretty alert that what you are reading is actually what has just been said, and often you are confused by the appearance of subtitles which don't relate, something you don't really know until you've read the subtitle! It would have been much easier if the subtitles had stuck to the commentary along, or a different colour or text had been used for each.
Now, moving onto the second disc! There are a plethora of deleted scenes included, all along with audio commentary from the Director. There's the option to play all, so watching them twice is easy, once normally and then with the Directors commentary over the top. Straight away on the commentary the Director talks of why he doesn't like deleted scenes, and he presents a strong argument. Indeed it's fair to say these aren't deleted scenes as such, but edited or unused footage. The reason I make the distinction is that I like watching scenes that the Director would have either preferred in the movie, or struggled on whether they belonged or not. Usually if a Director has removed a scene in editing it's because it doesn't suit the story, and this is something that the Director speaks quite eloquently on.
Accompanying the deleted scenes are interviews with all the cast members and a fair amount og short features discussing the film amongst the cast and crew, analysing the film and it's methods and even with the cast answering questions from the Oldboy fan club members!
I found these very informative about the movie making process and how Oldboy was made. Each cast member discusses their favourite scene and you hear some interesting inside information. There's an interesting commentary of some of the music tracks with the Musical Director and Director, discussing the meaning of some of the music for the characters and again giving more insight into the movie.
Overall I can't rate this DVD set highly enough. In fact I feel that since I've seen this set and the amazing amount of insightful, relevant and extremely interesting extras, that I should downgrade everything I've seen to date in order to give this movie and additional disc it's true standing. It's by far the best DVD set I've seen so far. Instead of just throwing extras at the DVD, they've produced extras that educate and expand on the movie, as well as the cast and crew giving enormous amounts of time to give meaty extras, the three audio commentaries prove this alone.
Oldboy is an amazing piece of cinema and a spectacular story with the most amazing twist, you should watch this original before Hollywood remakes it and ruins it. (The Director says he had a hard time getting the funding in Asia due to the content of the movie, how Hollywood will do it is anyone's guess.) Then if you're going to see it on DVD, get the two disc version and spend the extra time to go through all these extras, it's well worth it.