15 December 2013

Review: Oldboy

(Dir: Spike Lee, 2013)

Considering the reverence with which the original Oldboy is (justifiably) viewed, it'd be so very easy to get into a debate about the merits or otherwise of remaking foreign language films for Western audiences. But that's a tired debate. What is instead worth considering is when a genuinely creative and interesting director decides they want to take on a remake. That gives cause to pay attention and maybe expect a little more. Spike Lee may no longer be quite the visionary he was twenty or so years ago, but his presence always offered hope that Oldboy 2013 might have something to offer beyond tiresome retread. In fact this might've been a remake I'd have otherwise made no effort to watch had he not been involved.

On the one hand it's pleasing to say that Lee hasn't exactly screwed things up, but on the other, I can't see a single improvement in the vision he offers. The original Korean version is an unremittingly dark film, not just in the ideas it has, but in the execution. At times it feels like crawling along the floor of hell in a suffocating shroud of uncertainty. This is one of the appealing aspects of the film. Lee crafts a film that hints at darkness but it never feels insidious - perhaps that's one of the problems of a safe-seeming American setting compared to culturally alien climes. Josh Brolin's Joe is an extremely flawed man, someone needing redemption and direction, but his flaws are excessively hammered home. Brolin plays him well, but there's something almost too obvious about his character, almost as if he's written and played by numbers, a far far cry from Min-sik Choi's masterful performance. In fact the same rings true for almost all the characters. Elizabeth Olson, confident but dark past - perfunctory. Sharlto Copley, strange accent and near farcical awkwardness - a rote eccentricity. Samuel L. Jackson, mean son of a bitch with crazy hair - another variation of angry Jackson. Yet weirdly none detract. It's that kind of film.

In essence, almost everything from the original seems to be in place, but none of it works as well. Most notably the final denouement, which in the original is a savage multi-layered sucker-punch of epic proportions. Yet the remake decides to pare this down to not only be far less complicated and lose some of the point of it all, but when revealing the whole "process" makes far less sense due to too much reliance on chance. Not to mention that Copley's Adrian doesn't convince at all, a much lesser villain than Ji-tai Yu's Woo-jin Lee. For anyone who has seen the original none of this will generate the same reaction, but for those new to the story it will certainly have an impact. Again the same can be said when comparing the corridor fight sequence, one of the most iconic scenes from the original. There it's a realistically brutal and impressively staged fight in one continuous and beautifully tracked shot. This new version seems badly choreographed and lacking menace, like a dated action sequence. Symptomatic of the whole production really.

The remake of Oldboy could have honestly been made by anyone, with Lee failing to leave his fingerprints on it at all, which is a shame, but possibly the result of such strong source material. He seems to place more focus on why this is a flawed man who could be incarcerated for so long and lingers on his time there. Thus the quote "You can't find the right answer if you ask the wrong questions" seems apt. Yet it's a strangely enjoyable film despite it's numerous flaws and it's interesting to see how it has been reinterpreted to be American. This is a film probably best watched without any knowledge of the original, yet I would never ever recommend anyone watch this version first - to do so would be to rob them of one of the most jarring and darkly thought-provoking films of the century so far. Stick to the original, treat this as just a curiosity.

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