"Oldboy" (2013)

Oldboy (2013)
Directed by: Spike Lee
Running time: 104 minutes

So Game of Thrones is over for another year. What the heck am I supposed to look forward to on Monday nights now? Yes, True Blood starts again next Monday, and Jimquisition will always be there for me; but it always feels like such a long wait for Game of Thrones! I guess that’s the price we pay for the show not having one of those stupid “mid-season” breaks that it seems every other show has. And also, the show has short ten episode seasons so it never feels like it’s dragging/has the filler episodes a 22 episode show does. Please don’t ever change Game of Thrones, I love you for all the above, it’s just that next April is some 300 days away! I mean, Christmas will come and go before I see you again and, being a retail employee, that is a depressing thought…


Sorry, still adjusting to the new post Game of Thrones season four world. Maybe this feel-good remake of a classic South Korean film will cheer me up. Oh, did I say “feel-good”? I meant soul-crushing!

Now Showing this week is Oldboy, directed by Spike Lee and as previously mentioned is a remake of the Chan-wook Park film of the same name. Josh Brolin stars as Joe Doucett, an arrogant alcoholic who has been kidnapped, framed for the rape and murder of his ex-wife and is being held a in a hotel room prison. Joe spends 20 years in this prison, his only contact to the outside world being a television, before he is then miraculously set free. Confused and fuelled by rage, Joe is determined to discover who it was who imprisoned him and, more importantly, why.

I have previously mentioned the Korean version of Oldboy on this blog before, and I described it as: “a dark and gritty mystery with a twist so disturbing you’ll feel like you need a tetanus shot afterwards.” I can say without a shadow of a doubt that this remake lives up to that description. Even though I knew what events would unfold during the course of the film, there is no water hot enough to wash away the unclean feelings I got by the end. I shan’t spoil it for those of you who have not seen the original, but for those of you that have, director Spike Lee really nails the traumatic impact of the final act although he does not go as far as the original did. Many of you might cry foul over this change, but without going in to specifics, the alterations are minimal and were arguably not really necessary in order to retain the gut wrenching conclusion. 

Rest assured, Korean original fans and newbies alike, Spike Lee’s Oldboy is a dark and powerful film and you will be thinking about it for a good while after the credits roll.

I would say a large part of the film’s strength would be due to the acting and the scripting. On the acting front, the core cast of the film are brilliant. Brolin’s performance as Joe was one of his best. He successfully established himself as the despicable drunken Joe but then effortlessly transitioned into someone we cared about, all the while keeping a creepy sense of unbalance due to his decades of solitary confinement. Sharlto Copely as the mysterious stranger was very cartoon-villain like, with a high register and a perfectly sculpted goatee, but it felt appropriate to his character. Copely has always excelled at playing wackos, and this is role is no exception. Samuel L Jackson also makes an appearance and all I have to say is this: that man was born to say “motherfucker”, I will never get tired of it.

But the biggest stand out performance for me was that of Elizabeth Olsen as Marie Sebastian, a young social worker who is drawn to Joe and his plight. Olsen’s Marie felt like such a genuine character, with a curious complexity only explored through snippets of subtext, all the while sold with great conviction. A very pleasant surprise following my first encounter with her this past month in Godzilla.

If I had to give one criticism of Oldboy it would be that the movie was a little too faithful to the Korean original. I know I said that the ending is a little different, but what I mean is that it retains some genre tropes that did not translate as well over to a western version. The main area of issue for me was in respect to the violence in the film. Oldboy is quite violent, and rightfully so in some cases such as a torture scene and scenes involving some people being shot, but there is an action scene that just felt out of place. 

In both versions, Joe (or Dae-su in the original) spends the decades in confinement exercising and watching kung-fu on television, and by the time he is released he is a master of martial arts. Following an interrogation of one of his captors, Joe/Dae-su has a kung-fu fight against at least ten men and wipes the floor with them. Now the conventions of Korean cinema are different to western cinema and this scene in the original is considered to be iconic, but I felt that it was only in this remake because it was in the original. Don’t get me wrong, the scene is awesome in both versions, but I feel that objectively the story does not require it. In the remake every other part of the film is in no way an action movie, western or otherwise, so this random swap from a gritty, realistic thriller to an epic brawler and then back again felt like something better suited to a comic book film like Sin City. Now Oldboy has the kind of story that I think would suit an aesthetic like Sin City, but without the rest of the film reflecting the exaggerated reality of the fight scene then it just doesn’t seem right.

But if all I have to complain about is that the film contains a kick-ass fight scene then I really must be being picky. Oldboy is a solid remake, one that really translates the original over into a western context without losing the heart of the story. It’s the kind of remake I can get behind. Maybe don’t watch it as a date movie though. My girlfriend and I couldn’t really bring ourselves to even hug for a good while following our viewing and we’ve been together for nearly five years. If there’s a special someone you’ve only just met and you’re looking for a night in, this probably isn’t the best choice. They most likely won’t ever see you again!

See you next time!

If you made it through Oldboy and still feel like you’ve retained your innocence, then you’ve probably got what it takes to listen to Tom’s podcast Unnatural Selection.
For more of Tom’s writing antics, check out his digital CV.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @tomdheath


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