Words: Kieran Rogers
Somewhere in the annals of film criticism there is an unwritten verse of scripture that states: thou shalt not pre-judge a film before release, no matter its director, origin or creed. Abide by this and you’ve achieved cinematic Zen – a harmonious nirvana where passionate opinions can be free from bias or concern. This sits neatly alongside the first lesson of filmmaking: thou shalt not remake that which is sacred. Enter Spike Lee’s English language rendition of Oldboy, a tale first told on the big screen in Chan-wook Park’s twisted South Korean masterpiece, as one of the most obvious films to test and ignore these rules. Lest we forget that it has only been 10 years since Oldboy (2003) evolved from mere film to transnational relic, punctuating South Korean cinema’s second golden age after the industry had spent decades in censorship wilderness, by winning awards and audiences at European film festivals.
First came the announcement of a planned remake, to angry voices: “Hollywood, there to trample on all that we adore, to make profit from audiences too lazy to read subtitles.” Then came the details: Spike Lee to direct, followed by questions: “But has he got the flair or demented artistry of Chan-wook, the kind that a story like Oldboy demands?” Then, finally, came the promises that it would be a “darker” retelling, met to a chorus of snide and disbelieving scoffs, uproarious laughter and a universal understanding of the term “improbable.” Along the line, the casting of talented actors Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen and Samuel L. Jackson offered nothing but scant hope. And so for many, to the shame of the Critic’s Guild, the prospect of watching Oldboy: Version 2013 without prejudice may have already been accepted as an impossible task. The challenge for Spike Lee and his studio companions, then, has not only been for his film to repress these emotions but exceed expectations, based on a promise that has intrigued and enticed like it were a cleverly devised marketing pitch. What they have achieved is something quite different: a remake that allies only with our pre-conceived fears, one inferior to its predecessor in every distinguishable, stylistic way.
Replacing Choi Min-sik’s Oh Dae-su is Brolin’s Joe Doucett, a dysfunctional father imprisoned for twenty years for unknown reasons by an unknown enemy. His ex-wife murdered and his child taken into care, Joe is left to contemplate his existence until his release, when upon meeting Olsen’s Marie Sebastian he is led on a journey of discovery, truth and revenge.
This latest interpretation is realised through a substitution of the operatic (think Jo Yeong-wook’s classical soundtrack) for the pantomime (imagine Josh Brolin as an incarcerated Rambo, and plenty of over the top gore). It’s far more linear, insincere and saccharine, lavished with superficial stunts and Hollywood sound effects. That a minor plot point is solved through the use of Shazam is really all one needs to know of its flagrancy; in fact, the majority of the film is an advert for the way Apple products can help solve your 21st century mystery needs.
Considering the sole comparison to be made is to a film where a man eats a live octopus, this may appear as a warped double standard, but version 2013 suffers from nothing more than a lack of subtlety. When we spend time getting to know Joe we do so through people consistently and explicitly telling him (and us) “you’re a dick” – because we surely can’t work that out any other way, at least not through his divorce or his alcoholism. Elizabeth Olsen scantily-clad in a bathrobe is another image that reeks of explicit denotation. There’s also the apex of pantomime villainy: Sharlto Copley as Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber as a camp Englishman (or just Adrian ‘The Stranger’, if we need faux-titles), making an obtuse mockery of one of the most perverted and sociopathic cinematic villains of any era, of any language, of any region. Frankly, not much ever feels right; Lee’s Oldboy is less creative in its use of dialogue and semantics, more generic in its treatment of sound, and not as carefully constructed in its detailing of exposition or character than its forebear (and that’s not to say these problems would not affect its functionality as a stand alone film).
It’s always been the strange and startling that’s been synonymous with the Oldboy name: the gritty marine snuff of the octopus scene, the gloriously uncut choreography of the corridor fight, the comic and tragic brutality of the denouement. Irrespective of this release that will still be the case, though always in reference to its Korean upbringing and not the American detour; because, sadly, Spike Lee’s imitation only lessens the impact of the maniacal plot. As it is, haunted by the ghost of 2003, further dampened by extremely lukewarm reviews, disappointing box office takings and a limited theatrical run, this new Oldboy seems like a needless and fruitless venture destined for obscurity. “Laugh and the world laughs with you, weep and you weep alone,” right? You can’t say Hollywood weren’t warned all those years ago.