By Barbara Goslawski
It’s as if Spike Lee didn’t even have a fighting chance. His latest endeavour, Oldboy, is a remake of Park Chan-wook’s film of the same name, a modern-classic South Korean revenge-action-thriller which won the celebrated Palme D’or (2003). Notice that I didn’t call it Spike Lee’s Oldboy or refer to it as one of his “joints.” That’s because, although slightly reworked for American audiences, it is almost an exact replica of the original. In fact, Spike Lee’s effort really has no identity as a film in its own right. Park’s film has simply been re-made. Whatever personal touches Lee may have added (admittedly few considering his last few films) are lost opportunities lingering in the air of the cinema.
But I should temper my frustration with the admission that Josh Brolin’s performance in the lead as Joe Doucett is almost strong enough to salvage this effort. Almost. Oldboy tells the story of a man who is kidnapped, and mysteriously imprisoned in a hotel room for 20 years (15 in the original). When he is suddenly released, he naturally seeks to find out why and to exact vengeance on an unseen enemy. Unseen until the last quarter when, unfortunately, Sharlto Copley steps up to the plate to deliver a jaw-dropping spoof of Austin Powers attempting a serious role.
Is it even fair to compare a remake to its predecessor: two different cultures; two different points-of-view? Of course, details change in the transfer. Spike Lee turns Doucett into a hard character to like at first: a train-wreck of an alcoholic as selfish as he is angry. Once trapped, we almost expect an easy answer. It’s got to be someone he’s insulted. In the remake there is greater attention placed on vengeance on which this film relies. Otherwise, the film would move too slowly for its target audience.
In Park’s film, Oh Dea-Su is an ordinary man caught up in a shockingly unusual situation. The strength of that film is its pacing and the director’s rigid control: like a lion playing with its prey, Park deliberately relies on a repetitive structure, one that accentuates the psychological torture of the imprisonment and the seemingly never-ending restriction.
Regardless of where one stands on the whole issue of how to judge a remake, you just can’t escape the urge to compare in this case. Lee is constantly harkening back to the original in this film. There are endless direct references that remind us that this film is a remake. Seriously, does Doucett have to be tortured with Asian dumplings?
There is nothing in the new version to convince me that it was logical for Spike Lee to remake it. Since Do The Right Thing, he has not had much in the way of a style that anyone can speak of. Plenty of justifiable anger but no characteristic methodology behind it: just confusing attempts to be artsy (mostly with odd camera angles). In Oldboy, Lee uses a lot of extreme hand-held close-ups – not only is Doucett’s inner turmoil exposed, but we are drawn into his point-of-view. This at least helps us bond with him while imprisoned. Otherwise, Lee’s style in this film is pretty sloppy; nothing noteworthy, just pedestrian filmmaking. It’s got a dark, gritty look but that’s about it. And one of the most cartoonish, painfully melodramatic endings I’ve ever seen.
Oldboy is now in theatres.