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.
I owe director Hideo Gosha an apology. For years I slagged off his film The Wolves (1971), regarding it as a low point in his career, a grim yakuza slog, tedious and boring and unworthy of his talents. I now realize I was wrong; I’d based my assessment on a shitty transfer and bad subtitles. Having recently obtained the superior AnimEigo version, I’ve rediscovered this amazing film, and to the late Gosha-san I offer a humble “gomen nasai.”
You’ve got to understand that back in the early 2000s when I was writing my first book, Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves, TV technology wasn’t what it is today. Everybody didn’t have a big ol’ high-def, flat screen monitor for a TV. In fact, I was looking at a flat screen cathode ray job which was considered pretty cool back then (looks like shit now, of course). As it happens, that TV masked the flaws of the The Wolves disk I’d acquired, a cheap region-2 DVD from the UK which, looking at it now, was clearly burned from a video cassette (if you see the name Artsmagic anywhere on a DVD, stay away). “Murky” doesn’t begin to describe the look and, having now experienced the superior AnimEigo subtitles, I realize how bad the subs were as well. In short, I was sold a bill of goods and only now realize my mistake. I’m an idiot.
But the good news is that I got to rediscover something, always a redeeming experience. The Wolves is a slow burn, no doubt, but the cinematography, natural beauty of the location, excellent cast and sheer intensity of the drama make for an unforgettable and emotionally draining (in a good way) film experience. I won’t attempt a plot synopsis, as it’s all so very complicated. Suffice to say two yakuza organizations are at war, and there’s a lot of duplicity and treachery, and watch out for the two hit-ladies with knives in their parasols …
Tatsuya Nakadai is the anti-hero of the piece, his big, glassy eyeballs rolling around in anguish and disgust. Kunie Tanaka is great (as always) as the tortured yakuza soldier who’s been given a secret that eats him up inside. Isao Natsuyagi is the new boss of Nakadai’s gang, a questionable guy with a little pencil moustache. Kyoko Enami is the beautiful tattoo artist with secrets of her own. Real-life yakuza-turned-actor Noboru Ando is super cool as always. And of course The Inevitable Tetsuro Tamba is pulling all the strings. (This brief summary doesn’t begin to do justice to the film — you just gotta see it.)
The AnimEigo DVD, from 2008, is already out of print, so you’ll have to fork over to some third-party on Amazon or elsewhere. Poor AnimEigo; they’ve done such leal service to the samurai film cause, and now they’re struggling. I urge you to buy their stuff. Their Sleepy Eyes of Death boxes are awesome (featuring critical contributions from yours truly); Miyamoto Mushashi, Shinobi no Mono, even Tora-san. It’s all good. Get some!