I recall the sickened faces of Park Chan-Wook’s fans after the news of a possible remake of the South Korean classic Oldboy (2003) by Steven Spielberg and Will Smith in 2008. I too was dumbstruck by Hollywood’s attempt to squeeze those few extra bucks from the illiterate and ‘subtitlephobic’ of America; those who who prefer their Asian cinema with a tall heap of freedom kimchee. To be honest, after the news that Spielberg and Smith had dropped the project (adaptation or not) and then later Danny Boyle, I was waiting for a Michael Bay type to completely decimate this classic film. Love it or hate it, Oldboy made its mark on the international scene and helped bring Park worldwide fame after his high grossing and award winning Joint Security Area (2000) and the less successful Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002); the first installment in the Vengeance Trilogy which Oldboy belongs to.
Fast forward to 2012: Spike Lee is remaking Oldboy into Old Boy; Starring Samuel Jackson, Elizabeth Olsen, and Josh Brolin. I’m sorry–what–come again, did you just say Spike Lee? I could not have predicted a stranger outcome for the supposed end of the world–well aside from bringing back Salvador Dali from the dead so that he and Alejandro Jodorowsky could complete their ten-hour version of the 1984 classic Dune. I have been rattling this around in my brain all morning. Okay, first I think it is important to say that I don’t hate Spike Lee’s work. He has had several gems, even if he has also directed some equally terrible films. Yes, you have some classics such as Summer of Sam (1999), Do the Right Thing (1989), Malcolm X (1992), and even Bamboozled (2000) (though not many people probably think so). However, then of course the ever painful She Hate Me (2004), Girl Six (1996), and Red Hook Summer (2012). These are most likely the reason I have not seen more of your films Mr. Lee, but I still appreciate you. However, Oldboy — really?
Okay, I have appreciated Josh Brolin since The Goonies (1985), but he has really shined in the resent True Grit (2010) remake and No Country for Old Men (2007). My fear when I saw the press release was that Samuel Jackson was going to play the starring role instead of Brolin, so at least there is already an improvement (sorry Jackson). However, my concern is more with how to pull off what made the original Oldboy so effective: an East Asian take on dark and suggested violence, as well as narrative; often examined by film theorists when comparing the East and West. Even to Americanize the original Oldboy Manga novel and avoid any influence of Park’s work there is still a large cultural hurdle (not to mention almost an identical narrative). Simply put: people don’t want to see incest or someone cut out their tongue on camera like an American film would show, were in Asia it is made more powerful by leaving those images off camera. Moreover, Oldboy is about transcending vengeance/oneself in a very typical East Asian narrative tradition; this is the same reason the villain in Hong Kong’s Infernal Affairs (2002) finds a kind of enlightenment in the end instead of being shot like he is in The Departed (2006), Scorsese’s remake.
If I take all of my admiration for Park’s Oldboy and throw it in the river, merely hoping for a fresh and exciting take on the classic Manga, not just a couple nuances, I find some solace. However, I cannot wrap my head around how Lee directing this film makes any sense at all. I am not sure how a couple Hollywood action flics, a few documentaries, and a lot of campy comedy gives you the gusto to remake this film, or why a studio would put up the money for it. Perhaps the studios are desperate; we know that is at least somewhat true with the exorbitant amount of remakes pumped out of Hollywood these days. Perhaps Lee is trying to break the mold the media has pigeonholed him with: an angry crusader who strives for better representation of the African American population in the media. Lee and I could talk for hours over a couple beers about how ethnicity, age, sex, socioeconomic class, and identity are not equally represented in films and the media. I will always appreciate his social commentary even when it derails his films, but with little work in this genre or narrative style, I cannot fathom this remake will be something lasting, but then again–I am just a cynic who hopes he might be wrong–and Salvador Dali will return from the grave and finish making Dune.
What are your thoughts? Is it going to be great? Leave a comment below?
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