Oldboy: The Failure of Lee’s Remake, and the Power of Park’s Extreme

Warning! Spoilers abound.

Park Chan-Wook’s “Oldboy” has

10 years later, the screenplay was adapted into an american film, also entitled “Oldboy”. This time directed by Spike Lee and starring Josh Brolin, the announcement of the film was met with a lot of fan lamentation and premature lambasting. This visceral reaction was only validated when the film bombed at the box office.

Was Lee wrong to even have attempted to remake the original film? Is there a universe out there where this was a good idea?

The original film was an adaptation to begin with — “Oldboy” was originally a Japanese manga by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi. The reason Park’s “Oldboy” is so definitively considered better than the original, in this case, is not just because of medium accessibility but of how the medium was handled.

The film came in with the right tone, at the right time, to the right audience. Park was gaining steam as a director, with “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” under his belt, and in the face of international interest in the Orientalized “extremes” craze demonstrated by Asian dramas and horrors at the time. He took an obscure manga and, translating it through his penchant for the the kind of weird that works, the story went from drama-thriller to psychological horror with sprinklings of dark humour and action. While the man trapped for years in a single room for a reason he knows not is a conception of the Japanese manga, the violence and taboo sex were all Park’s (as communicated beautifully by his cast). While the backstory concerning middle school and a future influenced by hypnotism were Tsuchiya and Minegishi’s, Park’s relocation of the main character’s friend’s bar to an internet cafe and decorating the cityscapes with dark lights and eclectic patterns helped set the surreal modern tone that audiences latched on to. It was all these elements, combined with an amazing blend of ambient music and classical symphonies for the score and a talent for balancing sickening abrupt cuts and long single-shots (yes, that iconic hammer-fight side-scroller!) that turned “Oldboy” into a cult classic.

Lee’s 2013 version had none of that. With the loss of the fans of Asian Extreme cinema, against an established protective fanbase, and with a growing resentment towards remakes with increasing conversations about appropriation, Lee struggled to brand his film as a “reinterpretation”. He insisted in various press interviews that his creative control would be felt, despite the story not being his. This branding did little to assuage critics, nor inspire fans of Lee, whose previous works touched prominently on race-relations in the United States. Neverthless, it was repeated all throughout promotion as if Lee’s directorial culpability would keep the film on its’ feet.

The detractors’ tones only went from suspicious to smug when the assumptions turned out to be true — reception for the film was lukewarm to horrendously cool, and Spike Lee’s direction was panned. Not because he did anything particularly horrendous or different. Rather it was the lack of difference.

Indeed, the failure of Lee’s endeavour had less to do with what was lost, and more to do with what was not gained. Shot-for-shot remakes do not have a history of success with the public. In the case of the originals and remakes of “Carrie”, “Psycho”, and “Let the Right One In”, the second editions were so similar in cinematography and writing to the first that it left audiences wondering what the point of the whole engagement was. The only exception to this seems to be Michael Haneke, who recreated his Austrian “Funny Games” with an American cast, shot by shot, word for word, but who owned up to this process and explicitly said he wanted to keep the original intact as much as possible. In Spike Lee’s film, some elements from the original were lost, of course. Oh Dae-su’s readjustment to new Korean language inflections and live octopi were story characteristics that were particularly Asian and had to be done away with. Lee instead inserted a sub-plot on the power of media to influence the imagination, a double-take on the incest shock-value, and a different ending. These changes had aspects of Americanization or Hollywoodization to them — commentary against American fake news, turning the bad guy into a victim in his own respect, and a definitive conclusion. And while fine — better or worse is the movie-goers’ choice — they were not enough to balance out the unjustifiable retaining of elements from the film it was based on. The crimes American Oldboy committed in this respect included transposing shots to the point of distraction, incorporating overtly Oriental imagery to the point of nonsense, exemplifying Asian values and Asian contexts to American characters in American contexts to the point of incompatibility. All of this translated to a seeming lack of nerve: it looked like Spike Lee was piggy-backing off the original to an excessive degree, while being too scared to take the gratuitous elements to their full extreme.

Even Sanjay Gupta’s unauthorized remake, “Zinda”, had more departures and respect to cultural difference. Arguably, that may have had to do more with avoiding being sued, but I digress. There was still the imprisonment, the alluring woman helping the main character, the torture with a claw hammer, etc. But the film was thoroughly Bollywood-ized — it was branded more as an action-adventure film, there were songs, there was an “item girl”, the harsher elements were toned down, and the ending is a happy one. These changes were not good for international acclaim, but it pleased the director and casts’ audience bases and made a sufficient amount of money. Gupta knew to take and leave just enough, and to focus on his target audience instead of owning up to the pressure of living up to the original.

Ironically, Lee specified the “Psycho” remake as the type of thing he wanted to avoid doing with his “reinterpretation”. Why he failed to take his own advice is open to interpretation — there is supposedly a 3-hour long director’s cut that has yet to be unearthed. It may also be that the overt unnecessary homages to the original were attempts by the producers to appease “rabid fanboys”. Regardless, it still stands that the word “remake” that Lee so tried to distance himself from is the appropriate one. And unfortunately for him, it is neither a remake that works, nor a film that flies. The reason why Park’s film is still the definitive “Oldboy”, out of the four works discussed here with their four different cultures and four different endings, is because Park knew how to balance paying homage to different genres, through beautiful cinematography, and very complete characters working through very specific contexts. Park’s eclectic treatment was as unexpected as the story he told, but it was a dare that payed off and worked with respect to the people who went to watch the film. Zinda did not dare, but worked in its’ own way, according to a known-to-work formula, while Lee’s only dare here was to risk the ire of an established fanbase and risk tarnishing the legacy of Park.

Early in production talks, there were rumors circulating that the American film was actually going to be a direct adaptation of the Japanese manga, starring Will Smith and directed by Steven Spielberg. With the end result, it may seem that would have been a better choice, that would have drawn less comparison and given more flexibility as to choices of setting and scene. A more radical departure would have been the more interesting, and respectable product — could you imagine a story inspired by Oldboy, with the same basic plot mystery, but imbued with those racial commentaries that Lee is known for, and thoroughly Americanized in setting (whether urban or gothic)? That’s a film I would pay to see — not a truly amazing Asian film, laundered to blandness through a passionless, revenue-centric focus.

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For more reading on the subject, check out the following!

Martin, Daniel. (2017). REINTERPRETING REVENGE: AUTHORSHIP, EXCESS AND THE CRITICAL RECEPTION OF SPIKE LEE’S OLDBOY. Transnational Film Remakes. pp. 195-209 Edinburgh University Press

(2013) Twisted Histories: Park Chan-wook and the Legacy of Personal Trauma. Rising Sun, Divided Land: Japanese and South Korean Filmmakers. pp. 123-137
Columbia University Press

(2015) From the Margins to the Mainstream: Asia Extreme in 2004. Extreme Asia: The Rise of Cult Cinema from the Far East. pp. 142-162. Edinburgh University Press

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