Let’s get this right out of the way. Park Chan-wook’s Award winning 2003 film adaptation of the classic Japanese manga of the same name is a benchmark in South Korean cinema and is a film of exceptional beauty, violence, and unimaginable tragedy. It is better than its remake, a remake that many have argued was unnecessary and since we live in a time where vitriol fuels the internet, a scathing hatred of it existed well before it was ever seen. This is nothing new. Ask Ben Affleck. But this is a mistake.
This story of an Oldboy remake begins far earlier than this film. It started almost as soon as Park’s film was released. Fast and Furious franchise director Justin Lin was originally in the remake chair, but in 2008 the rights changes hands and fell into actor Will Smith’s interest with Steven Spielberg attached as the director. They were going to steer clear of Park’s interpretation and instead concentrate on the manga, though a year later the project was dead as the comic book publisher launched a lawsuit against the Korean producers for illegally selling the rights. Smith and Spielberg stepped aside. Through all of this, an unauthorized Bollywood film by Sanjay Gupta called Zinda (Alive) was released. No legal action was taken as the production company had closed shortly after. By the end of 2012, a new deal was brokered where a script was accepted that abandoned the manga and stuck more closely to Park’s film. Spike Lee came aboard and Josh Brolin was cast in the lead.
Oldboy is a tragedy. In this film, starting in 1993, Joe Doucett is a troublesome, alcoholic, and selfish man who finds himself ruining his last chance for success in his job by wrongly assuming the woman accompanying the man he his trying to make a client wants to ditch her partner and go somewhere for sex with Joe. That assumption costs him dearly. But it is clearly just one in a long line of failures, and as he caps the night off with binge drinking in the streets, he meets a woman under an ominous yellow umbrella with red hash marks scribbled on the top. She is the same woman he caught a glimpse of back at the restaurant where he made a pass at his client’s lady. The scene fades to black. We cut to a hotel room and Joe wakes up and he assumes his date is in the shower. She’s not. He’s alone. Worse, he’s locked in. There’s no windows and only a TV in the wall. Through a slot in the door, a tray of food is delivered. And it continues to be delivered three times daily . . . for the next 20 years.
What follows is Joe’s mental and physical transformation in isolation, his eventual release and the journey to discover who imprisoned him and why, but more importantly, to reconnect with his daughter, whom he wrote hundreds of letters to over the years and now keeps in a sack. But it isn’t easy, and Joe faces more questions than answers. And horrific violence. Anyone familiar with Park’s original will likely spend the entirety of film in constant comparison, judging one to the other. As with most second efforts, especially if the first is beloved, they are often held to much higher standards, which seems rightly so, after all, redoing something great is one thing, remaking a film that is only ten years old and the Grand Prix winner at Cannes is another.
That being said, Lee does some interesting things here and though never truly reimagines the world of Oldboy, does confidently guide our hero through it. Many scenes resemble Park’s closely while others are tweaked and some simply alluded too (Joe stops to look at an octopus but doesn’t it eat it) and still more completely rewritten. Lee also keeps the film at a comfortable, if not queasy distance from reality. Colors are a bit off, dialogue often ungainly, and relationships especially awkward. These choices may in fact be allusions to how Joe sees his world after living alone in what amounts to a big box for twenty years. Brolin is astonishingly good. Brooding, pained, menacing and driven, he is highly expressive in his face, being the only figure on camera for the first half. His portrayal is not deeply layered though nor should it be. This is simple limbic emotions. Brolin scowls and stares with great effectiveness. Elizabeth Olsen is also well-cast and her arch is fascinating and complex. She provides a softness the film desperately needs. And then there is Samuel L. Jackson and Shalto Copley. Both go in the opposite direction from the two leads and it is here where a division of opinion will be widest. Copely especially seems drawn from a comic book, his mannerism, speaking style and presence are cartoonish in a fiendish way. Jackson looks and talks like a, well Samuel L. Jackson character, much like his villain in Kingsman: The Secret Service. That means he’s turned up to 11.
Spike Lee’s Oldboy attempts to do what might not have been necessary, but as a stand alone film, achieves precisely what it intends, delivering a rich psychological thriller with some weighty questions and disturbing answers. Fairy or not, it will be judged by a standard perhaps too high and therefore simply cannot hold up, but is rewarding for those willing to invest in the film on its own terms. Here are 5 reasons why it’s better than you think (and 2 reasons why it isn’t).
Spike Lee knows his characters. In Do The Right Thing, painting in broad strokes, we knew who and what every person was about even before they said a word. Here, he creates a dynamic, breathing, claustrophobic world that lives just on the fringes of reality, essentially becoming a character all its own. There is a familiarity to everything, but it feels detached, a little over saturated and simulated, which as mentioned above, reflects well on what Joe is seeing and feeling. The sensory depravation of 20 years in one room and his release into an unknown world could be skewing his vision of the outside. It’s dark and angry, much like Joe. This is a beautifully violent environment for these troubled characters to exist in, and Lee keeps it gritty and menacing.
As mentioned above, Olsen’s character is fascinating and terribly tragic. No secrets will be revealed here, but Marie is the keystone in the film’s precarious arc. If she didn’t fit, all would tumble. Olsen brings great depth to the role, and if you watch carefully, is always a little weighted by her past. It shows in nearly every scene she is in and is remarkable for its subtlety. Oslen disappears into Marie wholly and her commitment to the part is unquestionable. What’s especially good is how well she keeps the story grounded, adding the emotional touches that many scenes might lack without. While Joe remains a cold husk of a man, immune it seems to any moment of weakness until the end, Marie learns that he may be spoiled in darkness and anger. Olsen is really very effective in playing with the contrasting desire to see his quest through and running away.
The most oft-remembered sequence of the Park film is the famous unbroken single shot corridor fight sequence (which employs a bit of CGI with the knife). That is 2 minutes 45 seconds long and features Dae-su battling left to right along a darkened hall to the elevator with only a hammer. It’s raw, messy and authentic, with untrained bad guys trying to beat down a relentless, vengeful man. It will remain one of the greatest long takes in cinema. So anyone interested in doing a remake of this film has this beast of a legacy to contend with. Lee decided that a straight copy of the scene would be a mistake, and he’s right. Instead of a long slow crawl horizontally, he combines right to left then down and right to left again. Unbroken for 1 minute 53 seconds, Lee claims the studio tampered with his cut, reducing the shot, which seems shameful considering if you’re going to anything right on an Oldboy remake, this is where you do it. But, the long take here is magnificent even if it can’t live up to the original. Training for 6 weeks to get the shot right, Brolin is a mad force of rage and the fight is easily the film’s action highlight. There are some things here of particular interest, most especially the absence of any blood. Despite the claw hammer he employes as a weapon (and a knife) which connects with some vicious strikes, no blood is seen, at least in the gratuitous sense many film employ. Further distancing itself from the Park original, the fight takes place in a warehouse in a brightly lit split-level section. Bodies are tossed about with unrealistic physics but not to distraction. The crippling, body-breaking reality of the Korean version is replaced with just enough fantasy as to keep it high-energy and (perhaps unfortunately) up with modern expectations. The best part is Brolin, who utterly commands the scene, as he should, and brings us to . . .
In the 2001 film Cast/Away, Tom Hanks is the only actor on screen for nearly two thirds of the movie. While that film stumbles in its denouement, similarly, Josh Brolin carries the first third of this movie with an ending that lacks the necessary punch (see below). As a captive in this unique prison, Joe Doucett must make a choice best made prophetic by The Shawshank Redemption‘s Andy Dufresne: Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’. Joe is given the thing he craves most, vodka three times a day, and in that drink is where he wallows for years, dealing with crushing loneliness and guilt. Brolin transforms himself for the part and effortlessly carries this vital section of the film, taking great leaps in emotion, feeling deeply personal. His connection with a mouse and its fate later on, is particularly touching and is one of Brolin’s finest acting moments.
This may seem like a cop out, but it isn’t. Having watched it and set it aside for a bit, the second viewing is actually better. With the secrets revealed, there is time to explore, and Lee offers much for close inspection. Psychologically, there is a lot of room for interpretation, especially with that fascinating final shot. It is a cunning smile. The Chucky character is also far more hefty the second time, and his fate is one that begs the question: What was his motivation and why is he so entrenched? The beautiful memory sequences are also very well-crafted and have a far more tragic and disturbing effect. The score by Roque Baños is also haunting and just subtle enough. As for the story, there is much hiding under the mystery and the clues are plentiful.
And here are 2 reasons why it stumbles:
Sharlto Copley is not so much miscast, but taking the character in the wrong direction. His backstory is hideous to be sure, and when it is so briefly, and shockingly revealed, it has tremendous impact. But his Snidely Whiplash approach, which is surely unintentional, inspires more smirks that awes. The exaggerated hand gestures, greasy slick hair, and wears a very strange 19th century Western lawman suit, all of which does nothing to promote fear or even interest. There is no passion behind his cause. He is merely calculated and well-planned, having organized and funded an amazing scheme. When the reveal comes, he is devoid of the humanity that was so powerful in the Korean version, his histrionics a distraction rather than an emotional payoff. And by no fault of Copley, his character is robbed of the personal rage and self condemnation that his Korean counterpart so horribly suffered. He is a victim rather than a partner to a terrible event and the catalyst for what motivates him is misplaced.
As good as the movie is, it falls short of greatness because it doesn’t bring anything new to the story. Lee is a gifted writer and film maker but can’t seem to lift this story out of and beyond the source material to really make it his own. No exploration behind the villain makes the climax bland, and just because Jackson wears funny clothes and has a mohawk, doesn’t mean he’s interesting. He’s not. He is a colorful character with nothing holding him up. He is, like many in current Western film, a stock cartoon crony. While anyone who has not seen the original may be shocked by the film’s plot and even some of the (toned down in comparison) violence, it still feels empty at the end, which is frustrating given the people involved. At least it was made for adults and not watered down to fill more theater seats with children, which is what many studios are doing to movies that have no business catering to such young audiences (Jurassic World). Oldboy isn’t a bad film, it just doesn’t go where expected. And hoped.
Thanks to Melissa from The Creative Fox Den for inspiring this article.