Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Oldboy 2013

*Here there be spoilers*

How do you remake a film like Oldboy? As I noted in Asia Shock in 2006, it was already a plan in Hollywood back then. It took awhile, but it finally got made, albeit to little fanfare and critical ambivalence. What do I think? Well I’ll tell you …

In preparation for my own review, I re-watched Park Chan-wook’s original Oldboy (2003), before screening Spike Lee’s 2013 reboot. I have to give props to Lee, he was fairly faithful to the original. He knows good filmmaking when he sees it, and although there was the usual re-jiggering for a Western audience (less ambiguity, more over-the-topness), he had the good sense to keep the really important stuff (the dumplings, the one-on-dozens fight sequence, the incest); details that got left out at least received a cameo (the squid, the angel wings, the severed tongue).

As someone noted here, I predicted a square-jawed Hollywood name would play the role made immortal by the great Choi Min-sik, and I was right. You could do a lot worse than Josh Brolin, but he still didn’t deliver the manic energy of my personal casting choice, Gary Oldman (ironically, now too much of an old man for which there is no place, unlike Brolin … or something). The great Sharlto Copley effectively conveys the vengeful villain of the piece, although to an unnecessarily affected degree. Michael Imperioli of Sopranos fame is the unfortunate friend, and Lee’s homey Samuel L. Jackson is memorable (as always) as the guy who runs the private prison in which Brolin has been confined for 20 years (up from 15 in the original). Jackson gets a much different, and decidedly less brutal, torture scene than his Korean predecessor ...

The two biggest weaknesses of the 2013 Oldboy are 1) the ending, and 2) the absence of dark humor. Go back and watch the original; there’s a certain ironic smirk underlying the proceedings that is wholly lacking here. As for the ending, once again with a Hollywood adaptation of an extreme Asian title, there can be no ambiguity. In the original, we wonder whether a now-tongueless Oh dae-su can make it work with his lover/daughter; in the remake, Joe sends his lover/daughter a “forget me” letter and checks himself back into the private prison, ostensibly forever. The former ending conveys an existential meditation on love, loss and, albeit creepy, redemption; the latter is simply a guilt-ridden, Judeo-Christian cop-out (“I must do penance for my terrible sin!”).

But at this point I can see both sides of the coin. I realize most of my fellow Americans aren’t going to get these Asian films like I do, and so do the folks in Hollywood. So they soften and contour them in their remakes, make them less spicy and thus more palatable to meat-and-potatoes Americans. In any case, I found this one to be far better than the others, owing to the directorial prowess of Spike Lee and a great cast. Worth a look.

3 comments:

Dr. Stan Glick said...

I think Richard Brody was the only reviewer of note who initially liked Lee's OLDBOY. I think he ranked it as the 13th best film of 2013, which struck me as insane since he placed several very well reviewed films much lower in his list. But, I'll admit, I hadn't seen LEE's version at that time. When I finally did see it a couple of months ago my opinion of Brody's opinion was confirmed. I was majorly unimpressed by Lee's reboot, or as he reportedly likes to call it, his version of the original manga. I've read that Lee -- and Brolin -- have complained about 30 or so minutes being removed from Lee's cut. Personally I think any additional time would not have helped it. Lee's OLDBOY was very weak in some major ways, certainly as compared with Park's film. Certainly nowhere near as engrossing. Brolin was okay. But the best thing in Lee's film -- again, my opinion -- were Elizabeth Olsen's breasts.

elizabeth raisa said...

Cheers on this, I appreciate you linking over. I come to realise the link about the study of Christian moral based ending for Western movies and a puritanical and humanly rational act. Now that seems interesting to watch. Jackson as the antigonist to do such crime shows another apartheid representation?

Patrick Galloway said...

I've got the first few volumes of the manga and, in fairness to Lee, his film is more in sync with this original source material than Park's film. That said, I like Park's Oldboy way more than the manga -- instead of simply adapting it, he used it as a launch pad, blasting off into the super unknown!