I remember watching Oldboy in high school, years after it first premiered, being enamored with the camerawork, acting, and the sheer violence of it all. Somehow, the 20th anniversary of Park Chan-wook’s transgressive masterpiece is upon us, and Neon's treating audiences to a 4K restoration now in select theaters around the country. Initially, I was skeptical about this restoration. Usually, these types of events are just money grabs by cynical distributors, but this is far from that. The trailer is accurate. This film’s never looked better, from the color grading to the sharper clarity. Plenty has been written about Oh Dae-su’s brutal quest for revenge after being imprisoned in a hotel room for 15 years, framed for his wife’s murder and separated for his daughter; and plenty more will be written now that new audiences are being exposed to this revitalized wild ride from one of Korea’s most iconic auteurs.
It’s impossible for any image on this blog to do the film justice. While the clarity is night and day compared to the older Blu-ray and DVD versions, I love that there was still a good amount of film grain left in the images. Along with adding character, it helps prevent the waxy skin tones that come with too much digital noise reduction. Speaking of skin tones, another benefit of the 4K upgrade is just how many details pop offscreen. From wrinkles to hair and clothing texture, it’s easy to be immersed in a movie this sharp. With Park being a devoted lover of Hitchcock, the more details we can see the better. There are a few restorations I can think of that dialed the colors up too much, making the blood look ridiculous, but thankfully there was a lot of restraint shown here. The colors have obviously improved, especially for nighttime scenes in downtown Seoul, but they never distract from the story.
I don’t know if there was any audio remixing, but I’d be remiss to not mention the score in this film. Park’s movies are always suffused with a kind of operatic quality, which is even captured in the symphonic crescendos that are heard throughout. These musical elements do a great job of highlighting the acting, which is still as fun as it was when I first watched it. Park’s ability to constantly walk a line between hilarity and tragedy allows each actor to show their range, and they take full advantage. Chin Min-sik conjures a performance that’s heroic, terrifying and pitiable all at once; and the supporting cast is just as great. Yoo Ji-tae’s portrayal of Lee Woo-jin isn’t just a cardboard villain cutout, but a lived-in, almost tragic character who’s haunted by his past.
The more things change, the more they stay the same; such is the case with this new Oldboy 4K print. Still as funny, disturbing and heartbreaking as it was two decades ago, I couldn’t be happier this film’s gotten the upgrade it deserves, making it even more visceral than before. Watch it in a theater near you!