In 2003 Chan-wook Park released his second in the “vengeance trilogy” Oldboy to overall positive reviews and it became a cult favorite as well as an almost instant classic film and Spike Lee opted to remake the film in 2013 with an end result that is a letdown to say the least. As the film is due for release on Blu-ray March 4 this year, it seems appropriate to take a look at both films and see why Lee’s vision doesn’t really work and why Park’s satisfies all the parts that the new film cannot reach. Being kind, it can be said that in terms of casting; Lee hit pay dirt. In this respect he matches Park’s cast very well. The South Korean filmmaker had Min-sik Choi in the lead (Oh Dae-su) and his leading lady was Hye-jeong Kang (Mi-do) who was a hot property in Korea at the time. The two worked brilliantly together and they sold the film and the characters in it. To complete the triangle, in the film and in casting, Park chose Ji-tae Yu as Woo-jin Lee the orchestrator of Oh Dae-su’s punishment. Lee’s cast was just as meticulously assembled and he also picked his players well.
Josh Brolin as the renamed Oh Dae-su – the Americanized version is Joe Doucett – and Mi-do is being played by the third Olsen sister, Elizabeth and her Americanized character’s name is Marie Sebastian. The punisher is played by Sharlto Copley as Adrian, another Americanization. There is no doubt that filmmaker Lee has gotten his acting ducks in a row, even going so far as to cast Samuel L. Jackson and Lance Reddick in two “crucial” roles and Michael Imperioli as Doucett’s best friend Chucky. Sadly for Lee, who has an impressive list of great films on his resume, the final film released for public consumption was “hacked” to bits by the film’s producers. The filmmakers original finished product was over 140 minutes long and after producers finished their hack and slash job the film was 105 minutes long and presumably lost the original Lee vision.
Both films were based upon the original manga. Created by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi the Japanese based story was published in serial form in the Futabasha weekly periodical from 1996 to 1998. The popular tale was picked up by Dark Horse Comics and ran from 2006 to 2007 in the U.S. In the original manga, the Oh Dae-su character – named Shinichi Goto – was only incarcerated for a total of ten years versus 15 years in Park’s film and 20 years in Lee’s. The plots are essentially the same, but, the main difference between the two films is the impact. Park’s film was almost painful to watch and the end so ambiguous that it matched the Takashi Miike ending to his cult hit Audition. Both endings left audiences torn and slightly confused as to the meaning of the ending. Sadly, Lee’s watered down version, sabotaged by the film’s producers, is a letdown. Spike Lee’s original ideas for the remake of Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy may have been another classic tale on par with Park’s vision. Sadly the end product disappoints and is a tepid retelling of the story.
There is no doubt that Spike Lee is a gifted filmmaker and it is apparent from the very beginning of the film that he wants the audience to understand that he is recognizing and crediting the original film by Park. At least two instances in the film are visual references to the first film. A scene involving a fish tank in a Chinese restaurant, where Joe is hunting down the Dim Sum (dumplings) that he’d been fed for the duration of his imprisonment shows an octopus on the front side of the tank and Joe stops to touch that area of the tank, seemingly transfixed by the sight of the multi-legged creature that is devoured in Park’s film. This “nod” to the original takes too long and it too obvious to be clever. Instead it is clumsy and bulky as well as distracting.
The plot deals with Joe Doucett who is imprisoned for 20 years and held in solitary confinement in a room made up to look like a motel room. With only a television for company, Joe spends his time using the TV as teacher, confidant and fact finder. After finally digging a hole in the bathroom, in which he intends to make his escape, he is gassed and released by his captor. Waking up in a steamer trunk in the middle of a field, he has a cell phone (an iPhone, no less) and a lot of money. His captor tells him that he must discover who imprisoned him and why or his daughter will be killed. While Joe was in the room he learns from the television that his ex-wife was raped and murdered; his daughter adopted by strangers and that he was implicated in the crime.
The biggest failing of Spike Lee’s film version of Oldboy is the script, and, presumably, the producer’s slice dice edit. In Park’s original, the lead character was a hapless individual. An “Everyman” type who is not the best at what he does and he shambles through life with no real direction. He is, however, a character that the audience can get behind and feel sympathy for. Oh Dae-su is not a bad man. He is guilty of liking his alcohol a bit too much, but again, not a bad man. Lee’s Joe Doucett is an ass. A “man’s man” who is an alcoholic and thinks he is God’s gift to women. Not likable and not the sort of character that the audience can get behind. In the beginning of the film where Joe is getting “set up” there is another scene which “gives a nudge and a wink” to Park’s superior film. Doucett stops to buy his daughter a birthday present from a street vendor who is wearing the angel wings that feature in the original film. Again, the shot is too long and too obvious to be enjoyable. At this point, however, and later in the film, the viewer does not care about the reference or about Brolin’s character, unlike the “likable” Oh Dae-su.
The other problem, again ignoring the hack and slash done by the film’s producers, is the lack of emphasis on the romance and relationship between the father and his daughter. In Park’s film Mi-do is a young girl who could be described as “scatty” and is in just as much mental distress as Oh Dae-su. These two character’s have much in common which enables them to bond and grow as a couple. It makes sense that the young girl ultimately falls in love with the older man. In Lee’s hands, Doucett and Marie don’t so much bond as suddenly decide to copulate. Lust is the operative word and no meeting of the minds sets it up. Marie, unlike Mi-do, is very confident and works as someone who helps those who need it, when she attends to Joe’s wounds, it is as a professional. Later the two become close but it lacks the truth of the original film’s characters and feels forced. Granted, the entire relationship is forced in the original by hypnosis which is also missing in this version.
Humor is another thing completely lacking in the remake. In Park’s film, amusing moments happen and are capitalized on. In the scene where Oh Dae-su finally sleeps with Mi-do in mid-coitus, he tells her that she should pray for a younger lover next time. Earlier in the film, a moment not recreated in the remake, Mi-do goes into the bathroom and the lock does not work. She warns Oh Dae-su not to get any ideas. He, of course, has plenty due to his long enforced celibacy; he enters the room and clumsily attempts to have sexual relations with her. She fights him off. The whole scene is amusing and touching at the same time. This sort of character defining moment is missing in the remake.
Sadly, at the end of the day, Spike Lee’s remake of Chan-wook Park’s cult classic Oldboy results in the audience feeling letdown and dissatisfied. At the box office, the film died a dismal death. It stands as the worst reception of any of Lee’s films. It has been called, rightly so, a box office bomb and it is no wonder that both Spike Lee and Josh Brolin have gone to great pains to distance themselves from the butchered product that was finally offered to the paying public. Perhaps now that the studio’s brass have discovered that their 105 minute version lacked any merit, they will consider allowing the original 140 minute Lee version to be available on future home entertainment mediums. The Blu-ray and DVD releases are set for March 4, as rentals, and the film can be streamed/purchased via iTunes, Amazon.com, et al. This film is definitely worthy of a look, but, not a “keeper.” For real entertainment purchase the original and watch true genius untouched by ham-fisted producers who do not understand the medium or their audience.
By Michael Smith