When director Chan-wook Park released the original version of Oldboy in 2003, the South Korean filmmaker, who adapted the story from a Japanese manga comic by Nobuaki Minegishi and Garon Tsuchiya, could not have known that his violent masterpiece would become a global cult classic and one of the most popular exports of the South Korean film industry. The film would go on to spawn two sequels, forming the anchor of the now infamous Vengeance Trilogy. Spike Lee, on the other hand, was well aware of the lineage and popularity of the films when he decided to release his remake this year. In that there are so many possible sources to draw inspiration from, books and films alike, Lee’s Oldboy is like a box of chocolates for fans; they can’t know what they are going to get until they open it up and see for themselves.
The original film follows the Kafkaesque story of Oh Dae-su, an alcoholic South Korean businessman who has been incarcerated in a private prison-like hotel for 15 years without ever being told the reason for his captivity. He is held without human contact and fed a diet of dumplings. His mental health suffers, as one would expect after spending 15 years watching television. Or 15 minutes watching reality television. Exactly 15 years to the day after his mysterious imprisonment, Oh Dae-su is released to wreck havoc on his enemies and seek answers for his incredible circumstances.
Now comes the kung-fu fighting, and violence of all sorts. The ending of the original, which will not be divulged here, is shocking and definitely a mind-bender.
In Lee’s remake, the Oldboy character is played by the ever-gruff and often dangerous Josh Brolin, as Joe Duecett. Like the Oh Dae-su character, Brolin is imprisoned for over a decade by mysterious men for unknown reasons. Duecett is also an alcoholic like Dae-su, and has similarly spent his time in isolation working his body into a physical specimen and going slowly psycho. Just like in the first film, the Oldboy learns from the television that his wife has been murdered and that he is the prime suspect. He is also fed a diet of booze and dumplings. When he is released, he wants to find his daughter, but he also wants to find out who imprisoned him, and why. During this quest buckets of blood are spilled as the Oldboy lays waste to the henchman of his anonymous tormentor, and here Lee enters into unknown territory, trying to relate the surrealistic violence of the original film without being wholly derivative. Park’s work specializes in the use of action, violence and revenge as much as Lee’s early works focused on life in the Black community, innovative cinematography and sex.
How do the two mesh? Oldboy is like a box of chocolates, or perhaps like a box of day old fried dumplings, you will have to reach in and pull one out to see for yourself.
What is evident is that Lee is a bit out of his element with the hyper-violence and relentlessly grim themes that he is working with in this remake. It may be true that Oldboy is like a box of chocolates, but it is a box made by a chef who usually makes rock candy. Or dumplings. Or…well, you take my meaning.
By Mark Clarke
Sources: IMDB – Internet Movie database