(Imitation is Flat) Oldboy Review/Comparison

Oldboy Comparison (more of a comparison than a review)
By Bret Dorman

I know that as a reviewer I should look at the art and craft of Spike Lee’s Oldboy and judge it on its own merits. But I have seen and deeply love Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy. When I worked at Blockbuster and saw it on the shelves I was turned off by its “Asian Extreme” heading on the DVD case. But the tagline is what got me. I didn’t know anything about the movie other than “15 years of imprisonment… 5 days of vengeance.” That and the back had credits with chalked out silhouettes of a body, hammer, and octopus. Interesting…

All I can say about it now is I was absolutely blown away. By the truly cinematic feel, the foreign elements which made the story not just non-traditional but fresh and unique, as well as yes, the many twists and turns in the movie. If I was to ever do a Top 5 Movies Best To Go In Absolutely Cold, this would be in it.

I don’t want to be that guy (especially as a “film guy”) who just sits here and rants and raves that “The original is better!!!” because that gets us nowhere. But I can’t help it. It’s not that the original is better, it’s that the remake adds absolutely nothing new to the genre. Like The Thing remake/prequel, I was hopeful and even excited about the many directions this could go. Yet the actual movie settled for fan service and exact plot point rehashing. Okay… but what ELSE do you have to say about the topic at hand?

Most normal of posters, inclusion of hammer showed imitation early on.

Most normal of posters, inclusion of hammer showed imitation early on.

The Story: Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is imprisoned for 20 years in a special secret prison. He is let out and teased by his captor (Sharlto Copley) to find the reason why he was locked up for so long. Along the way he is helped by Marie (Elizabeth Olsen). Also, he fights people in a hallway ON TWO LEVELS!

Before I quickly move into Spoilers! for Oldboys (even saying there’s a twist is sometimes a pseudo-spoiler since it can get a viewer trying to outthink a movie) I will try to pin point the biggest change in story. The most noticeable and important deviance? Voice over. In Lee’s version there is none. I know that voice over is a big no-no for most and considered a sub-par or hack technique by some, but Chan-Wook’s Oldboy had a certain noir-ish feel that it was okay. Also voice over is really a stand out crime when it comes out of nowhere (or simply bookends a movie) and the only purpose it to tell the viewer the point of what they just watched or clarify plot points. In Chan-Wook’s Oldboy, the voice over helps us to connect with the main character. He is trapped in a room with a tv, pen, paper, and his thoughts. We share those thoughts. And as he is set free and driven to the truth, we get to feel exactly how much the truth means, not that it’s simply a way of continuing the movie. Lee’s main villain must tease the main character by having a hostage to drive the two together. Chan-Wook’s villain teases and gently guides the two until their paths finally cross for good.

And now I must enter SPOILERS! for both Oldboys.

Another referential poster.

Another referential poster.

The biggest concern was how would an American filmmaker deal with the issues of incest and extreme violence, seeing as both are not really mainstream incentives for American moviegoers. In that sense, yes, credit goes to Lee & Co. for not dumbing down the gore, nudity, or creepiness. The movie is dark and grim. But beyond this I must end my praise. You don’t get brownie points for keeping a dark movie dark.

I imagine the biggest audience for this movie will be people who have seen the Korean version, which is full of great compositions, interesting scenes, stand out set design, compelling forward momentum, a now legendary hallway fight scene, and a knock out ending. Let’s break down how Lee’s version drops the ball on all of these.

There are a couple of interesting shots but there is no discernable style. Chan-Wook’s still composure is sometimes copied but drained of its life. Most conversations happen basic over-the-shoulder style and nothing draws particular attention to itself. Some may find films that make the viewer self-aware they are watching a film distracting, but personally I love it. I love style. In Chan-Wook’s version, the camera mostly remains calm and still while the editing sharp and shocking. Every shot seems specifically designed as the only choice for that scene. Lee’s version is a much more economical “Let’s get some coverage and put it together in the editing room” watered down operation. In fact, I almost wonder what this movie looks like in the alternate universe where Steven Spielberg directed and Will Smith starred (as was originally planned in the earliest of rumor stages). Automatically that movie has my interest, because even if it sucked, I’m sure it would have been different to the point of worth seeing.

From 15 years to 20.

From 15 years to 20.

The Korean version stands out as a really weird experience because it’s so… well, foreign. I know that sounds obvious, but there’s just so much culturally that I can understand how it might be off-putting to most Americans who want to question every bit of character motivation or plot point. The young female character in the Korean version is seemingly forced into the story more awkwardly and helps out the protagonist for almost no reason. It is explained later through hypnosis (a device not used in the American one, interesting in and of itself) yet I can’t help but wonder if her character isn’t as out of place culturally speaking. This American version is definitely smoother and makes more sense, but there’s still a lot of suspension of disbelief going on and many coincidences and extreme stretches of logic. To me, the cultural barrier of the Korean version sort of helped make the whole film a strange fantasy that spoke on a more literary level. Elements like stranger kindness, hypnosis, eating a live octopus, missing memories, extreme revenge, maniacal planning, and desperate humiliation make more sense when viewed with a sharp sense of style as well as character motivation based on emotion rather than logic.

Chan-Wook’s Oldboy has a lot of visual flair and tiny gems to make every scene a stand-out scene. At the same time, each set feels alive and bursting with a layer of grime or desperation. Some of the locations are cold and some are bold. With Lee’s version, there is mostly a sense of practicality. Sure some of the sets look nice or feel fancy, as the story requires them to, but everything feels typical. Here’s a typical dive bar. A typical house. A typical boarding school. A typical warehouse. A typical rich person’s penthouse. Also, how did the villain get cameras EVERYWHERE in this movie? He even has access to random places like motel rooms.

Perhaps the most plain of all.

Perhaps the most plain of all.

Perhaps it is because I already knew the ending (for the most part) but this film seemed rather dull and even uninterested in exploring the torture of its main character and more concerned with making sure the audience knew how everything was fitting into place while hitting all the beats of the original. The point that stood out the most was where the main character tested out his fighting ability. In the Korean version, he sort of stumbles into a street fight where he roughs up some dudes while also getting roughed up a bit back. It feels gritty and messy. The choreography is sloppy and amateur in presentation (on purpose). Here however, the guy is attacked and then mercilessly beats the life out of some young kids out of pure anger, expertly executing takedown after takedown. He is flawless in his execution. And for a character so concerned and pressured with staying anonymous so he can hide from the law, he sure doesn’t seem to mind punching a guy’s face in 8 times. I’m sure the cops will understand!

Speaking of fight scenes… yes. This movie has a hallway fight scene! And not just on one level, on two levels! Wow! Here’s where the movie lost me. Somehow in the Korean version, the thought of one of the thugs having a gun never crossed my mind. Why? The place was such a dump and run in such a slime-filled manner that it just makes sense that everyone would have a piece of 2×4 or pipe or maybe a knife. And the actual fight felt sloppier and more life threatening for the main character. He is really put through a meat grinder and forced to take his competitors out of commission through force. Spike Lee just copies the camera’s steady glide and adds a visual element of going up and down and around to another level of fighting. But immediately I was wondering how Samuel L. Jackson’s character didn’t have a single gun on premises (or maybe there were I just didn’t notice?) because he seemed classier and more prepared. The main character here feels more in control the whole time and the desperation is just soaked out of the scene. Characters stand close and just waggle around. The only ones who connect are the ones with breakable wood. The elevator gag isn’t even set up properly. The best thing to do would be to not do the hallway fight or find some other type of crazy stand out scenario that doesn’t just mimic and most offensively, try to out-flair the original. I was most disappointed and upset with the handling of this scene and how by the end of it, I was completely underwhelmed, more than any other part of the movie.

Why does her umbrella have the tally marks? Oh, because I've seen the original and get the foreshadow reference!!!

Why does her umbrella have the tally marks? Oh, because I’ve seen the original and get the foreshadow reference!!!

Speaking of underwhelming… The final twist is more work than it’s worth. The idea of incest is gross to us Americans, but the power of pregnancy isn’t as desperate as with a culture where overpopulation is more of a factor and procreation is more closely monitored. Whether or not the pregnancy was a phantom one or not is irrelevant, the fact is that character is much more desperate. In America we have a show called 16 & Pregnant. It’s not as shocking. But here pregnancy isn’t an issue because they eliminate it from the story. The decision to make the villain not interested in his sister, but his father is interesting, but ultimately a minor change. In fact, the father deciding to kill everyone out of shame seems to further the main character from the blame than the original, where he was kind of sort of to blame and in such a way that made the villain much more mad and insane for going through with his plan. I had heard Spike Lee say in an early interview that even Oldboy fans would be shocked and pleased with the changes they made. But what changes? There is a bigger (and more solid) red herring in the form of a crime mystery show in regard to the ‘daughter’, the villain loved his dad instead of sister, and that’s about it. Our “hero” still sleeps with his daughter and the villain still wins in the end. In fact, I find the ending much less interesting when the main character decides to just lock himself away as some sort of punishment instead of going through hypnosis to keep his daughter happy (and that final smile is much more disturbingly-desperately-deeply troubling in the Korean version). All the cleaning up this movie did to make the pill go down easier almost take the pack out of the punch when all the cards are laid down.

Let's solve this mystery, gang!

Let’s solve this mystery, gang!

The most interesting exclusion to the film is that it is nearly completely devoid of a sense of humor. “Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone.” is replaced by a customer service “How can we make your stay more enjoyable?” type poster. Other than that, there is no discernible sense of humor. I love the rooftop reveal, man who wants to commit suicide (and wlaking away from his story), elevator awkwardness, “Time to put theory to the test” callback when ‘attacking’ the young girl on the toilet, the chasing the delivery bike, and penthouse elevator button reveal in the original. Despite being a very bleak and depressing story, there is still room for laughs. Apparently Spike Lee didn’t think so. Which is fine for him, it’s better to drain the movie of all dark comedy than try to spice things up with an occasional out of place joke to try and get a laugh. But unlike comedic relief characters or moments, I don’t think the Korean version is meant to provide viewers with specific moments of relief, but rather find the humanity in these dark moments. Ultimately, the Korean version is about human nature. There is never a moment where you doubt the protagonist’s desire to seek the truth yet every step he takes leads him to his own self-destruction. By the end, he is put through a gauntlet of emotions and desperation leading to him cutting off his own tongue. The villain comes out more on top and decidedly more evil. Spike Lee’s version, at best, is a cheap imitation knock-off. The only thing explored is how to make Oldboy “more accessible” to mainstream audiences who won’t go see the movie anyway because Oldboy is not a mainstream film. He uses an iPhone! Wow! And I don’t have to READ what the character’s are saying. THANK YOU SPIKE LEE!

Finally I must address the actors. Josh Brolin is spot-on casting. He really does a great job propelling the film with his innate “Do not fuck with me” vibe. And Samuel L. Jackson is around mostly to add some explicit verbal variety to the movie. The two polar opposites are Elizabeth Olsen and Sharlto Copley. Sharlto is devastatingly bad in this role. He just doesn’t have what it takes to deliver the smooth-creepy sad-happiness that the role requires in the limited screen time that he has. Of all the roles this one is perhaps the most important because the entire movie hinges on what this character does and why. The most changed character is maybe the daughter, who is given a bit more backstory and functionality. It also doesn’t hurt that Elizabeth Olsen is quickly becoming one of my favorite actresses. Even if she’s in a bad movie she seems to draw all of my attention when she’s on screen. She is truly mesmerizing and here is no exception.

In Conclusion, remakes can be tricky. Some people want them to stick as closely to the original as possible. Some want to see it from a more modern point of view of with (better) CGI. I however, want to see the core theme explored with a unique perspective. I appreciate the occasional homage to the original but I’m not impressed with the ability to reconstruct it plot beat by plot beat. Despite being a fan of Park Chan-Wook’s version for its bold style, bravado moments, dark humor, stunning shots, complex characters, and absurd twists and turns… I am not saddened by the fact the Spike Lee’s version drains Oldboy of all those things. I am more upset by how completely pointless it is for not adding anything thematically to the conversation. The only thing worth talking about Lee’s Oldboy is what it does differently, not what it has to say differently. And in the end, that’s the one of the greatest cinematic crimes I could think of, remake or not.

Final Grade: F

2 responses to “(Imitation is Flat) Oldboy Review/Comparison

  1. That was a great breakdown. I’m one of those totally un-interested in Oldboy done in America movie-goers. In fact every time I see the trailer I want to gouge out Samuel L. Jackson’s eyes (the role fits Brolin with eery perfection). Still you made me want to run out to see the Korean Oldboy!! In fact I’ll put it on my list of must see. (I love Korean culture.) One of the problems with American Cinema today is we’re always surfing for a story to make, we don’t care what it’s message is, we just need any quasi-cool story. We rarely try to tell the world anything in particular, except maybe ‘I’m cooler than you.’ (There are those agenda movies where indoctrinating the masses is the point.) You made watching all those Oldboy trailers so worth it, thanks!

    • If you haven’t seen The Korean Version and still read the whole thing I apologize but there was fair warning. There are certain twists and turns that can really sucker punch a viewer who isn’t expecting them (or at least doesn’t know what they are).

      Having said that, if you love Korean culture and movies it is definitely a must see.

      I agree mainstream American flicks are mostly style over substance and I don’t have a problem with that, except Oldboy’s story is so naturally about something deeper that to make it devoid of that takes some skill in and of itself I suppose…

      Thanks for reading and hope you enjoy Oldboy!!!

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