LABEL: EMI Music Korea
MSRP: $26.49
MUSIC BY: Yeong-wook Jo

We first discussed the idea of music reviews a few months ago, but I had writer’s block back then, so it sat on the backburner until Chan-wook Park’s classy stunner approached its US DVD debut, which gave us the perfect time to unleash this hopefully regular feature on Enjoy!

As a self-proclaimed soundtrack nerd, I have a little tradition that I do whenever I get a new soundtrack, whether I’ve seen the movie or not. I go into my bedroom, turn off all the lights, close the curtains, make sure I’m in complete darkness and then play the album through my home theater setup. Sure, that all sounds a bit weird and pretentious, but it’s what I do.

The first time I put the score for Oldboy in my DVD player, I listened to it four times straight. Anyone who hangs at CHUD knows all about this movie, and how great it is. It had a firm place on Nick, Devin and Dave’s top films of 2004 and it’s been given kind words by virtually everyone who has seen it. Virtually. Hell, it’s the only film I can think of which has won over every single person I’ve recommend/shown it to. But I’m not here to talk about the movie, persay. I’m here to talk about the noise. I’m not going to go through every track – because it might get a bit over-long and tedious, so I’ll just give an overview and tell you about the cream of the crop.

The album is littered with audio snippets of the film’s dialogue. Since I’m writing to what I’ll assume is a primarily Western audience, this probably won’t make a whole lot of sense to you unless you’ve seen the film a lot of times. Then again, many CHUD readers are such film nerds, they probably have. The opening track, ‘Look Who’s Talking’ begins with such a snippet, specifically of the exchange between the roof jumper and lead character Oh Daesu at the beginning of the film. The actual score begins with the music that underscores the opening logos, using piano and strings to create a beautifully sweeping and almost romantic melody that almost has an underlying hint of tragedy under the surface. This builds and builds, with more and more of the orchestra adding to it until it launches into what I can only describe as “a phat beat.” Combining the orchestral with a thumping techno beat, intermixed with a sound that – to me – sounds like the noise a particularly small Autobot would make when he transforms. In relation to the film, the beat kicking in coincides with the opening shot of Oh Daesu holding the jumper by his tie over the building. It sums up the film, really. It lulls you into a false sense of security based upon your expectations from classical orchestral tones, then smacks you upside the head and says ‘wake up dude, this is NOT what you think.’

‘Somewhere In The Night’ is the main title track. The titles actually start to appear from the moment Oh Daesu leaves the Police station, and then the main title kicks in at the end of that sequence when he disappears. It’s more classical material, again using strings to build and build, upping the tension and the urgency. ‘The Count of Monte Christo’ is stunning, a haunting and tragic melody that really screams isolation and desperation, and almost a sense of self-introspection or contemplation. There’s something about this piece, and indeed the whole score, that has a very, well, Eastern feel to it, and while I guess there’s nothing really to discern it from contemporary American scores – for example, there’s no stereotypical Oriental instruments that I suppose you might expect – it just feels so different, and so fresh.

Part of the freshness is the alternation between classical orchestral music and modern electronic tunes, and indeed the combination of the two. ‘Jailhouse Rock’ is a good example of that, a very artificial sounding groovy beat backed with a tingly and repetitive melody that sounds like a cross between something Daft Punk might write and the track ‘What Is Fight Club?’ from the Dust Brothers’ score for Fincher’s movie. It’s this kind of approach and freshness that really separates Oldboy as an album that you can listen to while walking down the street. I don’t know about you, but while I adore movie scores in every way, shape or form, I don’t really like to listen to them while on the move. Maybe it’s something to do with the rhythm.

‘Cries and Whispers’ introduces the theme of Lee Woo-Jin, the villain of the piece who created this whole insidious plot. A stirring procession led by the string section that sounds almost Gallic, and that it maybe should be scoring a 19th century high society gathering. Like many of the cues, it’s a waltz, appropriate considering the whole merry dance Woo-Jin leads Oh Daesu on throughout the picture, and it’s full of melodrama and tragedy. The nature of the drama of the piece fits with the high drama of the character, and his plot, so it works rather well. It’s also beautiful to listen to by itself.

Woo-Jin’s theme is apparent through much of the score, which becomes appropriate when you actually get to the meat of the story. I’ll leave it at that, because while I know many CHUD readers have seen this, it’s still a relatively new release so I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. ‘Breathless’ is another example of the sweeping tragedy of the theme, beginning with a very quiet and low-key simple version using piano and a single violin, before segueing into the full string version. It really has an epic feel to it, the piano and violin giving it a romantic/tragic air that makes it sound like it should be in a film about nineteenth-century sexual deviance and adultery, before the full orchestra takes it up a notch or thirteen.

But the best version of Woo-Jin’s theme, which appears approximately thirty-two times during the soundtrack, appears on ‘Farewell My Lovely,’ a very straight-laced version of the piece, but one which suddenly ends with the sound of Woo-Jin humming his own theme. It sounds beautiful, and it’s something I don’t think I’ve seen/heard in a movie that wasn’t something like I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, and works perfectly without standing out as an intertextual gimmick.

I’ll be honest, I could wax lyrical about the leitmotif and spout musical terms that define the quality of Oldboy’s score all day, but I’m not going to, because frankly it’ll be boring to write and it’ll be ten times as boring to read, and to be honest, I don’t know a whole lot about music past the basics. However, I know a good soundtrack when I hear one, and Oldboy is just that.

One of the things I love about Oldboy is that themes play such a big part, and the way the three central themes of Oh Daesu, Mido and Woo-Jin dominate the music, but never in a Media Ventures-style ‘We’re playing the theme because the hero/villain is doing something heroic/evil’ way, works beautifully with the texture of the film. I’m pretty much a whore for themes, thanks primarily to John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith, and it always seems to bug me when I see a film where themes are misused, or in some cases, nonexistant. Of course, themes aren’t the be all and end all, but when done well (Jaws, Three Colours Blue), they can really enhance a film by a lot. But this is only a roundabout way of saying that the score for Batman Begins sounded like Media Ventures elevator muzak.

Oldboy is a great movie. It also has an amazing soundtrack. It’s wonderfully composed, it comes in a great digipak that mimicks the pattern on Woo-Jin’s umbrella, and the titles are all named after movies. Yes, I’m an absolute nerd, but I love that kind of stuff because it’s the sort of thing I’d do if I was ever able to put a soundtrack together for one of my movies. Admittedly, the CD costs a bunch on Amazon, but it’s totally worth it, at least until EMI gets around to releasing a US version, says the man who’s been waiting five years and more for a Western release of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. In any case, this soundtrack is spectacular. Be sure to tell all your schoolfriends.

9.2 out of 10