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OLDBOY: THEN AND NOW
…and by then I mean only ten years ago. Still, it isn’t as bad as the [REC] and Quarantine timeframe – with [REC] coming out in 2007, and Quarantine coming out not even a year later in 2008. As much as we bitch and groan, remakes of good films are inevitable, and that inevitability only increases if the original film was foreign – because “I’ll be damned if I have to read subtitles!” – or so that’s how it seems Hollywood thinks of the average American film viewer. So, it was only a matter of time before one of the holy grails in film, Park Chan Wook’s Oldboy – a film held by many, including myself, as their favorite film of all-time, was seen through the sniper scope of Hollywood. Seeing as how the original is a very dear film to me, I am going to try and stay as objective as possible with this, we’ll see how it goes.
(Spoilers are marked when appropriate)
Currently holding the #81 spot on the IMDB top 250 films, and sporting 18 wins, and 11 nominations, Park Chan Wook’s Oldboy is a heart-wrenching and soul-crushing tale of a man who was mysteriously imprisoned in a hotel-like room for fifteen years with no answers as to why. (“If they had told me it was going to be fifteen years, would it have been easier to endure?”) He is suddenly released, and given three days to find out both who imprisoned him, and why, which leads him on a dark path of revenge and violence, and one of the most shocking endings of all time.
The man, Oh Dae-su, is played by Min-sik Choi, who excels at making the audience feel his agony of both the imprisonment, and the questions (and answers) that follow after his release. When we first see Oh Dae-su, he is on a rooftop holding a man with a dog off the ledge by the man’s tie – what circumstances escalated to this moment in time?
He flashes back to ‘the beginning’ and he is drunk and in a police station. The scene escalates as alcohol continues to take over his blood and we see Oh Dae-su making an ass out of himself. He is bailed out by a friend, and it is revealed that he is missing his daughter’s birthday. While talking with her on a payphone outside the police station, he passes the phone off and wanders out of the booth. After the phone conversation is done, Oh Dae-su is nowhere to be seen.
The rest of the first act is Oh Dae-su in his cell. He gets fed through a slot in the door and is never given any information as to where or why. As the years pass, Oh Dae-su comes to grips with his situation – first going insane and trying to kill himself, then transforming his body (Min-sik Choi actually gained and lost twenty pounds for this transformation) so he can confront whoever put him in there. He receives an extra chopstick one day with his usual order of fried dumplings and decides to start tunneling his way out. Years pass, and the hole gets bigger, with Oh Dae-su, after years of picking away at the wall, one day being able to stick his hand outside and feel rain for the first time in fifteen years. Suddenly, gas fills his room and he passes out. He awakens enclosed in a trunk on top of a roof, nearby, a man with a dog looks puzzled at him. The journey begins.
In the event that you haven’t seen the film (you need to change that RIGHT FUCKING NOW) I will not spoil the events that follow. For the full impact of the film, one needs to go in as blind as possible, trust me on this one.
What makes the original SUCH an amazing film? The way I see it, it is one of those rare – call it serendipitous – moments in film where every ingredient (or damn near every one) is perfect – from the cast to the script to the music to the cinematography – EVEYRTHING is synched up perfectly. Add to that some incredible emotions – some of which one does not see much in movies, given the subject matter – and some insane violence, you have a perfect soup of ingredients. Slurp it up, bitch.
All bitching and moaning aside, I tried to go into this one as clear-minded as possible. Yes, it was a remake of my favorite movie. Yes, it was Spike Lee. Yes, it was not a necessary remake – I tried to push all those immediate hostile thoughts aside and just watch on an empty slate. Also, by necessary remake, I say there are some (very few) films that benefit from the remake treatment – be it to modernize the story (The Fly) or add a different perspective to a great premise (The Thing). However, most films do not need it (Total Recall, Robocop, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, 13 Tzameti, The Amityville Horror, Solaris, Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, The Wicker Man, Pulse, Wizard of Gore, The Fog, Bangkok Dangerous, Straw Dogs, I Spit on your Grave, Quarantine, When A Stranger Calls, Prom Night, Carrie, Psycho, Dark Water, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Haunting, Funny Games, Let Me In, Night of the Demons, The Grudge, My Bloody Valentine, The Manchurian Candidate, I Am Legend, The Last House on the Left, and The Karate Kid to name a FEW.)
Now, the original came out only ten years ago – does it need to be modernized? Not really. Sure, cell phone technology has evolved – with most of the film’s exposition and mandatory research scenes happening via iPhone – but you know what, there was more of a mysterious element to the original when everything wasn’t at the tip of his fingers, more of a journey. Nothing else has radically changed in terms of necessity to the story or technology – there were a few tiny upgrades, such as a camera in his cell, but all in all, it just felt like a commercial for Apple. Did Spike Lee offer a different perspective? By watching the trailer, you would think it was 90% the same movie, and by watching the movie you would say that holds about true, so no. This was not a necessary remake.
What was changed? There was a lot more in the first act of this new one that made the viewer dislike Oh Dae-su – I’m sorry, John Doucett (get it?!) such as his penchant for alcohol and poor decision making. In the original, you were introduced to a drunken Oh Dae-su, but you never think that is his baseline, as it is John’s. That being said, the viewer does not feel the same emotions during the imprisonment scenes – by making the audience dislike the protagonist, somehow twenty years (yes, they added five years) doesn’t seem as agonizing and unjustified as it did in the original. The infamous one-shot hallway fight scene was presented in this one, again in one shot (or using that awesome, unnoticeable editing style that Gaspar Noe uses a lot) and even added another dimension to it, however even with that, the fight seemed a little weak – we all know Spike Lee is not an action movie director, and it showed here.
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The reveal of the original was also kept intact, with a little bit more added to the antagonist’s side, which did a good job adding to his hatred for John. Also what John decides to do in the end is different, but equally intense.
(For a more intensive spoiler-tastic list of changes, check out THIS.)
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What didn’t work in the remake? The main thing that bothered me is the fact that so much time is spent on the first act, that the second and most definitely the third act felt VERY rushed. In the original, the pacing was fluid throughout – the journey was never rushed. Here, it seems like everything happens in the last 30 minutes and bam, he is already at the penthouse. Rumor has it there is a 3-hour work-print that this final version was edited down from, so perhaps that had the appropriate level of pacing.
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The third act explanation scene was painfully trite compared to the original, and even the reaction was watered down – in the original, Oh Dae-su took some very drastic measures to prove himself, here we just get a Darth Vader “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” It surprises me that the ending was kept intact for the American remake, given how taboo the topic is (and how much of a bitch American audiences seem to be) so, why not have the same, or even more of a reaction than a laughable cry?
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What worked well in the remake? Honestly, I can only think of one solid ingredient I really enjoyed, and that was Josh Brolin’s portrayal of John Doucett. While not as strong as Min-sik Choi’s performance, Josh does an amazing job with the script he is given – especially in the first act. Another thing I enjoyed was a little addition to the reason/back story – not too much, but enough to justify everything the antagonist did. Also, the scene I am referring to really reminded me of one of the most brutal scenes from Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs, so bonus points there. Also, I thought of two more reasons I liked the remake: Elizabeth Olsen’s tits. I said it.
Ok, so, final verdict.
This remake did NOT need to exist – and I am not just being a protective fan boy – nothing really new was added to the table, sans a few technological upgrades, a new dimension to the infamous hallway scene of the original, and a different ending. Sadly, the inconsistent pacing of the second and third acts (most likely a result of cutting from a three hour work-print) severely impacts the journey and it ultimately feels rushed. There were a few little nods to the original, such as a Chinatown vendor wearing the fairy wings, and John Doucett looking at a squid in a fish tank, but really, stick with the original for the best telling of this tale.
“Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone.”