Spike Lee’s remake of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy was met with a largely negative response last week and many fans claimed that it was just Hollywood at work again tearing down a revered foreign film just for the money. Money is a motivating factor in a lot of Hollywood decisions, but it is hard to imagine this project was green-lit anticipating hundreds of millions of dollars in box-office receipts. Still, I walked into the screening with optimism, Lee is an auteur in his own right and the chance to see him work with a script that wasn’t penned by him is exciting.
NOTE: Spoilers will be discussed below.
Remakes are some of the most problematic features in all of cinema. Filmmakers grapple with fidelity to the source material and how much to include and what to leave out. Lee doesn’t make himself beholden to each and every plot-point of the original, and his directorial effort was never going to be a shot-for-shot recreation, but there are many references to the 2003 original—one of the most major of them being when Joe stares into an octopus tank, only to walk away from it. Every reference to Park’s masterwork feels like broad strokes of the scenes we were once intrigued by.
Little differentiates this film from the 2003 original, same drunken protagonist kidnapped and kept in confinement for years, same captivity right down to the dumplings served for dinner, same release with the promise that if he figures out why he was held for all those years. There isn’t much to critique on behalf of the acting, with solid actors making up the majority of the roles.
Josh Brolin physically embodies the anguish and boiling rage of Joe Doucett, going through rapid weight gain and loss, along with the sheer physical toll of the action scenes required of him—all of which is completed convincingly. Elizabeth Olsen, known best from her work in Martha Marcy May Marlene, is skilled at developing a wide range of emotions, but the character of Marie isn’t developed much and it was similarly underwritten in the 2003 adaptation, so that is a draw. Really, the only difference is how the villain (played by Sharlto Copley) is handled.
Yes, the film has its flaws, most stemming from the fact that the memorable, pivotal scenes are recreated from its predecessor, but more disturbing to viewers is a notable uptick in violence. Oh Dae-su’s acts of brutality against himself and others are more alluded to in contrast to the graphic manner that Joe Doucett smashes in heads and shears his own tongue out of his mouth. Also cause for griping is the aping of the original’s South Korean locale by placing the remake in Chinatown instead of building its own atmosphere.
Taken by themselves, these differences may not account for much, but the real culprit of dissatisfaction is the hacked-up presentation of the infamous hallway fight sequence. In Park’s film everything is captured in one-take, utilizing close-ups to emphasize the claustrophobic nature of the combat. Compared directly, the difference is more than a little disappointing.
With all of that said, 2013 Oldboy still has pleasures to be witnessed.
Sharlto Copley’s wild, over-the-top as Adrian may not gel with what fans of the original film hoped for, but it makes perfect sense with the outlandish revenge story presented. Woo-jin Lee was more conservative in his scheming, but Adrian is far more entertaining. My main qualms with Park’s cult-classic rested on the shoulders of Woo-jin Lee and Copley gave me something new to appreciate in his twisted take on the character.
Sean Bobbitt (12 Years A Slave, Place Beyond the Pines) is in charge of lensing here and turns in spectacular work for the third time this year. Doucett’s displeasure eating dumplings is captured to celluloid so succinctly by Bobbitt that your stomach almost turns after his fourth and fifth servings.
And that ending—it can’t just be shaken off when you exit the theatre. It is a tone-downed rush (for those who have seen the original anyway), but it is sure to be an experience that audiences will be talking about. Most moviegoers are not familiar with Park’s original Oldboy, but that doesn’t mean that a translation wouldn’t have just as much resonance. Whether Lee’s tweak is an improvement is a matter of taste, or the viewer’s morality, but it will definitely spur conversation. Isn’t that what we seek from a trip to the movies?