What We Can Expect from Spike Lee’s Oldboy Remake
Only 10 years ago, South Korean director Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy was released to critical acclaim. It was instantly embraced by audiences around the world and hailed as a twisted masterpiece. Hollywood didn’t take long to decide to give the popular film (based on a Japanese manga of the same name) an English-language remake, which was initially going to be directed by Steven Spielberg and star Will Smith. That remake is finally set to be released in October this year, only it now comes to us from director Spike Lee, with Josh Brolin in the lead role. Though it would be hard to argue that this remake is by any means necessary, fans of the original shouldn’t write the film off just yet. Here are three reasons to remain optimistic about Spike Lee’s take on the material, and three reasons to keep that optimism in check.
(Spoilers for Oldboy to follow)
3. The Disturbing Source Material
At its core, Oldboy is a movie about the lengths we’ll go to recover from the pain of our past and what we’ll endure to keep that pain from infecting the loved ones around us. In the film, Woo-Jin engages with an incestuous relationship with his sister. When classmate Oh Dae-Su inadvertently spreads rumors about the relationship, Woo-Jin’s sister kills herself. To get revenge, Woo-Jin captures and imprisons Oh Dae-Su for 15 years, then manipulates him into initiating a sexual relationship with his own daughter. This is dark stuff, and it’s difficult to imagine any Hollywood studio wanting to go near it – a plot which revolves around incestuous relationships would likely put off mainstream crowds. However, this makes the hiring of Spike Lee rather encouraging as he has never been one to shy away from morally ambiguous material. He shouldn’t have any problems keeping true to the more cringe-worthy elements.
Do the Right Thing, possibly Lee’s best film, is impressive for the way it explores issues of race, culture, and class with such a well-rounded, unbiased approach. There are no heroes or villains, no clear rights or wrongs – just people trapped in a cycle of tension and violence, trying their best to get by. Even Inside Man, Lee’s most mainstream movie to date (and thus his most successful at the box office) refuses to sink into binaries of good vs. evil. The cop has a shady past involving missing money and drugs from a previous case, and the bank robber is stealing from a man who earned his riches by working with the Nazis during the Holocaust.
If done right, Oldboy should have this kind of character ambiguity. Dae-Su is the hero, but his carelessness in his youth did ruin Woo-Jin’s life. He also begins the movie as a drunken fool, spending his nights in a police station instead of at home with his wife and daughter. Most upsettingly, he chooses to continue his relationship with his daughter in the film’s closing, never revealing to her who he really is. Lee likes to leave audiences with a final question to mull over – Did Mookie do the right thing by smashing the window? Should Monty have followed his father’s advice at the end of 25th Hour? With a story as powerful as Oldboy’s, Spike Lee should deliver a knockout ending that is sure to stick with you long after you leave the theater.
Why You Should be Worried:
It’s no secret that Spike Lee’s movies often tackle political and racial issues in American society. And with the exception of some misfires like Miracle at St. Anna, Lee displays these issues with the complexity and insight they deserve. Sometimes these issues take front seat, such as in Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X. In other films they simmer in the background. The September 11th attacks do not directly influence the narrative of 25th Hour, but the event still looms over the entire film. Inside Man features one key scene involving a hostage negotiation, while a giant but faded “Never Forget 9/11” poster hangs in the background. Such background elements work for these films, because New York City itself becomes a character – wounded in 25th Hour and healing in Inside Man. Yet such a politically-charged style wouldn’t be appropriate for Oldboy.
This isn’t to say that Lee is going to turn Oldboy into a conversation about racism in modern America, or a 9/11 retrospective. But this is Lee’s style, and he has been consistent about it. It’s entirely possible that Lee could place these kind of distractions into Oldboy and the results could be a confused and disjointed movie. This is a story that’s already full of controversial subject matter worthy of discussion: the dark path of vengeance, the consequences of a single act of recklessness, to name a few. To divert from these core themes in order to serve a personal agenda could cheapen the entire movie and reveal Lee’s inability to keep his style in check when adapting popular material.
Of course, a lot of those decisions come down to screenwriter Mark Protosevich, whose past credits include I Am Legend and Poseidon, both remakes like Oldboy. I Am Legend engaged due to a cool setting and the performance of Will Smith, but it fell apart in its final act. Poseidon boasted some impressive CGI but little else, so neither of these works get me too optimistic for his take on Oldboy.
2. The Cast
Spike Lee’s work with actors has brought about some career-best performances: Edward Norton in 25th Hour, Denzel Washington in Malcolm X and Inside Man, and Samuel L. Jackson’s breakout role in Jungle Fever. His ability to get the best out of his actors should be trusted at this point. What is worth looking at here is how the cast of this Oldboy remake fit their characters.
Josh Brolin is a great pick for Oh Dae-Su (named Joe Doucett in this version). Brolin has proven excellent at playing men who appear calm and put together on the surface, yet are bubbling with emotion and energy underneath, ready to explode at any moment. He showed this in Milk, his Oscar-nominated performance and likely his best work to date. Brolin’s work in No Country for Old Men displays similar skill; just look at the scene where he reacts to Chigurh’s phone call threatening his wife. He remains in control, but just barely. After twenty years of imprisonment, Oh Dae-Su has an almost zen-like aura around him in his quest for vengeance, yet he can lose it all in shocking releases of violence and desperation. I can’t wait to see what Brolin brings to this tragic character.
Next, Elizabeth Olsen has been cast as Mi Do, named Marie in this movie. Marie is Doucett’s investigative partner, love interest…and daughter. Olsen’s performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene is undoubtedly what got her this part and it isn’t difficult to see why. Though she doesn’t have many movies under her belt, what Olsen showed in Martha is a range beyond that of most young actresses working today. Her character was damaged and lost, fighting a bad case of PTSD in the aftermath of her involvement with a mind-bending cult leader (played with creepy intensity by John Hawkes). To make her character in Oldboy work, she has to have the allure and chemistry to be a romantic lead, with the vulnerability necessary to show that she is really just a girl desperately seeking some companionship in her lonely life. Olsen is the perfect choice for this kind of role.
Finally, we have Sharlto Copley as Woo-Jin (Adrian Price), the man so devastated by his sister’s death that he quietly sets about ruining Oh Dae-Su’s life in a quest for revenge spanning 20 years. Woo-Jin is brilliant in his planning and ruthless in his execution, yet in his final scenes he reveals himself to be just a confused kid unable to recover from the death of his love – even if that love was his sister. He’s sympathetic and even pitiful, yet repulsive in the sick way he orchestrates Oh Dae-Su’s relationship with his own daughter. The only performances Copley has given so far have been in District 9 and The A-Team. Though his wacky take on Murdock in the latter was fun, it’s really District 9 that we are left to look at when deciding how Copley will fare with this difficult character. I have no doubt he will perform well in the final scenes, as his character in District 9 was able to remain sympathetic even as the character’s actions verged into morally grey territory. Copley won the audience over with his sweet smile and manic desperation in equal measure.
Why You Should Be Worried:
As for the character in the first two acts of the narrative, I am not convinced that Copley will be able to pull it off. Woo-Jin is mysterious, his motivations unclear. He toys with Oh Dae-Su playfully, yet you know he is always in complete control. Copley doesn’t seem capable of pulling off that intimidating of a presence. But I would be more than happy to be proven wrong.
Going back to Brolin, he has never had to carry a movie like this before. The closest he’s come to being a leading man is in No Country for Old Men, which was really equal parts Javier Bardem and Tommy Lee Jones. It has been reported that Lee has extended the screen time of Oh Dae-Su’s prison sequence, elongating it to a 20 year period. That implies that there could be a good half hour of the movie consisting entirely of Brolin alone in a small room. I’m hoping for a surprise like Ryan Reynolds in Buried or James Franco in 127 Hours here. Brolin could very well deliver, but putting that much pressure on his shoulders is reason to be concerned.
1. The Visuals
Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy is filled with stunning imagery and iconic shots. When doing a remake, a director has to decide whether to simply duplicate famous shots from the original, or change them entirely. Spike Lee doesn’t seem like the type to copy what’s already there – he would rather make the material his own. If anything, he’ll try and top what came before. Look at the most famous sequence of the original Oldboy: a brilliant side-scrolling tracking shot following Oh Dae-Su as he fights his way out of a tight hallway with only a hammer in hand. People who have seen a rough cut of Lee’s version say that he has expanded this fight scene to take place on multiple floors, adding an intriguing new vertical element to the brawl. That alone should be enough to get you excited for Lee’s approach to the material, as he clearly plans on expanding the scope of the story and giving something new to fans of the original.
Lee is also working with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, who has an impressive resume including Hunger, Shame, and The Place Beyond the Pines. Looking at the complicated opening tracking shot in The Place Beyond the Pines and the conversation with the priest in Hunger, it’s clear that Bobbitt is an expert at staging lengthy takes. I can’t wait to see his work on Oldboy, especially if a few of those long shots work their way into the multilevel fight scene.
Why You Should Be Worried:
The issue with working with iconic shots like this and trying to top them, as it appears Lee is trying to do, is that you can go too far with it. The fight in Oldboy is so beloved because of the simple elegance of the camera movement (inspired by side-scrolling fighting video games), the haunting score, and the brutal realism. To take that and turn it into a sprawling battle could prove to be a mistake, relying on more action and violence when the simpler alternative is in fact far more powerful.
A good comparison is the pool scene in Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In and Matt Reeve’s American remake Let Me In. Reeves took the shocking violence and intense stasis of Alfredson’s single shot and spiced it up with quick cuts and a higher body count. It works, but it’s not nearly as shocking as the original. The problem is that both of these shots – the pool and the hallway – are essentially perfect. Any attempt to crank them up to 11 will just come across as forced and unnecessary. This is the corner directors find themselves backed into when remaking movies that are already so accomplished and effective.
It is also difficult to imagine how this remake will handle the elements that won’t translate well into American society. Though I would enjoy watching Josh Brolin eat a live octopus, such a meal is only common in Korea and not in the United States. Seeing Oh Dae-Su chow down on a living thing, tentacles oozing out of his mouth, is not only uncomfortable to watch, but an important character moment. How can such a thing be duplicated in the remake? Oh Dae-Su also finds his captors by going on a dumpling-sampling spree across the entire city. How will this plot element be handled? I can’t help but dread a remake where we are forced to watch Josh Brolin trek across New York City eating slice after slice of pizza. We’ll just have to see what Protosevich and Lee have come up with.
Hopefully a trailer will be released soon. Until then all we have is pure speculation, but at this point I can’t help but get my hopes up. The choice of director is compelling, and the cast seems up to the task. Few people forget the first time they saw Park Chan-Wook’s original masterpiece, and the wonderfully perverse twists along the way. It was a fun, stylized thriller that also managed to surprise and even disturb. Spike Lee certainly has his work cut out for him, because he has to deliver this same experience to new viewers who haven’t seen the original while still pleasing those who already know every turn of the story. He has a lot of hurtles in front of him, but if he finds a way to navigate them, this could be one of those rare remakes that actually works. Find out if Oldboy successfully connects with a new audience or misses the mark and alienates fans of the original when it comes to theaters on October 11th.
What do you think? Leave a comment.