by Matt Levine
In 2004, Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy was released internationally, obtaining near-instantaneous cult status. The Grand Prix winner at that year’s Cannes Film Festival (with a jury headed by Quentin Tarantino—never one to disparage an outsized, ultra-bloody revenge fantasy), Oldboy was a gruesome melodrama that coasted along on its surreal, hell-hath-no-fury vibe, concealing its emotional and thematic vacuity with eye-popping stylistics and a giddily labyrinthine plot. The movie (based on a popular, less bloodthirsty manga by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi) was tailor-made to satisfy the hardcore film geeks out there, especially those who like their Asian extreme cinema served cold: word got out about Oldboy’s infamous live-octopus-eating scene, or the four-minute tracking shot that follows its protagonist pummeling his way through an army of henchman with a single hammer, and the film’s status as a grisly cause célèbre was firmly entrenched.
Director: Spike Lee
Producers: Doug Davison, Nathan Kahane, Kim Dong-Joo, Roy Lee, Spike Lee, John Powers Middleton, Peter Schlessel
Writer: Mark Protosevich, based on the manga by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi
Cinematographer: Sean Bobbitt
Editor: Barry Alexander Brown
Music: Roque Baños
Cast: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Imperioli, Pom Klementieff, James Ransone, Max Casella, Linda Emond, Elvis Nolasco, Rami Malek, Lance Reddick, Hannah Ware, Richard Portnow, Hannah Simone, Ciera Payton, Cinqué Lee, Steven Hauck, Caitlin Dulany, Ilfenesh Hadera
US Theatrical Release: November 27, 2013
US Distributor: FilmDistrict
Yet Park’s film suffers from a shallow hypocrisy to which many revenge flicks fall prey: how do you condemn man’s bloodthirsty rage while constantly glorifying that “debased” savagery through opulent stylistics? Django Unchained completely implodes due to its juvenile carnage, while another recent South Korean flick, I Saw the Devil, loses any thematic substance it might have had right around the time it unflinchingly observes its hero dismember a bedridden villain’s jaw. Ironically, Park Chan-wook’s follow-up to Oldboy, Lady Vengeance (2005), does achieve this tricky moral ambiguity, but it’s a thematic quandary Oldboy is either unable or unwilling to address. This doesn’t necessarily lessen the film’s astounding visuals or wickedly clever plot, but it does turn it into a guilty pleasure: hardly an inquisition into the depravity of humanity, Park’s Oldboy can only offer explosive escapism.
But at least that’s more legitimate than the only apparent impetus for Spike Lee’s American remake: money. There is, simply, no reason for 2013’s Oldboy to exist, as the only fleeting pleasures it offers are far exceeded by the Korean original. Once again, we are introduced to a sleazy playboy in the midst of a vodka-fueled bender (he drinks the kind of vodka that could only exist as a movie prop, with the word "vodka" prominently splayed across a nondescript label); Joe Doucette, as he’s named here, is a depraved loner who forgets his three-year-old daughter’s birthday and wears a perpetual, self-loathing scowl. Josh Brolin does what he can in the role, but it’s hard to deliver a believable performance if the only direction you’re apparently given is “act tough.”
Following a Korean woman with a yellow umbrella down the alleyways of Chinatown (what’s up with this movie’s East Asian exoticism?), Joe mysteriously wakes up in a windowless room with a poster tauntingly asking, “How Can We Improve Your Stay?” (There’s an image of a minstrel-like bellhop on the poster, the visage of Spike Lee’s brother Cinqué; it’s one of several moments that seems to hint towards some kind of racial or political commentary without delivering on these half-proposed ideas.) This is the hellish prison in which Joe will spend the next twenty years, imprisoned inexplicably, occasionally drugged and cleaned up by unknown caretakers. Scenes from American life over the last two decades play nightmarishly on the tiny television—the 9/11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the inaugurations of Clinton, Bush, and Obama—as though Joe’s imprisonment were analogous to a hegemonic American political system that constrains its populace. But if Lee’s imagery is occasionally provocative, the connection to modern American society just isn’t there; the plot is so ludicrous that Oldboy’s tenuous metaphors for Americanism come off as empty and overindulgent rather than insightful.
Joe descends further into his hellish rabbit hole when he discovers (through the form of a tawdry true-crime TV series) that he’s been framed for the rape and murder of his ex-wife. Of course, revenge becomes his all-consuming obsession, though that rapacious thirst for vengeance stems more from the movie’s desire to portray shocking violence than from any kind of believable character motivation.
The plot thickens when Joe is suddenly released from his subterranean cell, emerging from a trunk in the middle of a verdant field. (Compare this scene to its parallel in the 2004 original and you'll get clear proof of how much more ably Park utilizes cinematography, mise-en-scène, editing, and sound design to craft a viscerally overwhelming scene.) As Doucette’s tormentor will eventually tell him, Joe spends too much time questioning why he was imprisoned in the first place and too little time addressing the more baffling question: why was he abruptly released after twenty years?
But since violent rage is seemingly the only thing on Joe’s (and Spike Lee’s) mind, we’re treated to sickening scenes of torture and senseless brutality, all for the sake of an equally repugnant epiphany. Almost immediately after being set free, Joe pummels half a football team into oblivion (the plethora of broken bones rivaling the opening scene of Jet Li’s Fist of Legend); after returning to the warehouse that entrapped him for decades (and which apparently houses dozens of other bewildered prisoners), he embeds the claw of a hammer into the back of a man’s skull and interrogates one of his captors by cutting off bits of flesh from his neck and literally rubbing salt into the wounds. There isn’t necessarily more violence than in Park’s original (which would be a mean feat), but the violence here does seem more senseless, more sensationalized—partially because there is nothing thematically or emotionally substantial behind such brutality, but also because Lee’s style is so derivative that the violence can’t even wow us viscerally.
It’s hard to know what Lee makes of his vicious protagonist—are we supposed to cheer when he eviscerates dozens of henchmen in the cruelest ways possible? Despite an awkward and lugubrious ending in which Joe seems to have a horrified change of heart, there’s no complexity to his thirst for blood, no moral gradation to complicate his role as a stoic vigilante with a corroded heart of gold. There is, furthermore, a sadistic villain complete with body scarring and a snide British accent (if he had a mustache, he’d be twirling it relentlessly); he’s played by Sharlto Copley, who supplied another of the year’s most idiotic movie villains in Elysium. In other words, we’re never asked to reconsider how “heroic” Joe’s actions are, completely eradicating any moral investigation this movie pretends to employ. I have no ethical qualms about portraying violence in movies, especially when such carnage makes us reevaluate our own spectatorship (as in Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, the British thriller Kill List, or the French home-invasion nightmare Inside); but Oldboy’s simplistic depravity simply emphasizes Lee’s immature treatment of genre tropes, his apparent acceptance that ruthless vengeance truly can instill some kind of moral balance.
Is there a more unreadable director in American cinema than Spike Lee? He’s responsible for a few of this country’s masterpieces over the last 30 years (Do the Right Thing, 25th Hour, When the Levees Broke), and is often fascinating even when he falters (as in Bamboozled, the subversive Inside Man, or last year’s Red Hook Summer); but his outright failures display some deluded attitudes towards sexuality, violence, and morality. She Hate Me is the ultimate example, but Clockers and Summer of Sam also exhibit a crude definition of what makes someone a man or woman, black or white, liberal or conservative, right or wrong. These simplistic assumptions are resurrected in Oldboy, but that may be because Lee is simply in director-for-hire mode; even his overt stylistic touches are mostly absent, excluding a camera occasionally strapped to the actors’ torsos.
What does that leave us with? A remake that’s occasionally engrossing for its over-the-top storyline and sporadic bursts of visual aplomb. But why settle for these faint glimmers of excitement when Park Chan-wook’s original outdoes the American version in every conceivable way? The Korean Oldboy may not be insightful or profound, but it’s overwhelming and astounding in ways that the pointless remake can only noxiously mimic. In other words, the original tries to elicit the audience’s aghast, vehement reactions; the remake tries only to elicit our box-office dollars.