Revenge, like octopus, is a dish best served cold!

Song of the Day: ‘The Clock’ by Thom Yorke

A couple of months ago saw a dismal opening for the Spike Lee re-make of Korean cult movie, Oldboy. And rightly so, if one were to ask me. Why did this movie need to be re-made? (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, anyone?)

Anyhow, I had promised myself that I was not going to watch it, but a friend made a great point. ‘How can you dismiss it so easily? You have to at least watch it before making any sort of judgement, don’t you think?’ So, I duly sat myself down and finally watched it this past weekend. And for good measure, more like to remove the bad taste left in my mouth, I re-watched the original. 

oldboy

I love Oldboy– Park Chan-wook‘s landmark movie (the only Oldboy in my books). Probably one of my favourite movies: not only does it have deception, surprise, love, action, and a riveting plot that winds you through the murky underside of Korea, but it keeps you guessing till the end. Oldboy is great!

The movie is clever as clever can be. Even after watching it years later, I still cringe at its climax. Perhaps I had forgotten some of its more riveting scenes: I noticed new scenes, new details that I had missed, even new characters! All that is nice and dandy, you may be thinking right about now, but what is the movie about? One man is strangely abducted on the street and then forced to live in an apartment/prison for fifteen years. He is given a TV on which he eventually witnesses a report on his wife’s murder with the authorities convinced that he is the missing suspect. To make matters worse, if they weren’t already, his three-year old daughter is taken away. Fifteen years of no sunlight or real human contact, and, all of a sudden, he wakes up, free, on top of a building. Eventually, the person who imprisoned him makes contact and gives him a date (a month away) to solve the mystery. And this, my friends, is where it truly begins.

Everything that occurs in the movie has significance, so be attentive especially to the subtler scenes. Ultimately the whole movie is driven by the question ‘why?’ Why has someone taken the trouble to abduct Oh Dae-su  and kept him away from the world for fifteen years? Why was he framed for murder? The reason is terrible – one of the vilest. I will add it is also a cleverly written drama – taking into consideration that vile premise, of course. I definitely have to acknowledge the acting of the terrific Choi Min-sik as Oh Dae-Su.

OldboymangaIt is amazing how Park adapted the popular Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi manga of the same name and made it into a very riveting movie. He took the material as far as it could go in both dramatic and confrontational terms. We are already used to mangas diving into black-hearted territory but rarely do movies venture any more. Part of the appeal of this new wave of Asian cinema, driven by movies from Japan and Korea, is that willingness to plunge into the depths Western cinema, especially Hollywood, is too timid to explore.

We can say that probably one of the reasons that Park’s movie was well-appreciated is that he is a master of composition. He made some of the snazziest-looking pulp fiction flow. He has an impeccable, if unoriginal visual style, indebted both to the usual masters (Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrik, with a nod at Luis Buñuel) and especially to David Fincher, whose pop nihilism and dedication to the medium hung heavily over this film.

Anyhow, it has now been 10 years since Park unleashed Old Boy (the second and most famous instalment in his Vengeance Trilogy), an arresting if dubious hybrid of grind-house, extremity and art-house cred that turned heads and stomachs. Since then, other Korean pulp mavens have come to international prominence, some of which have surpassed Park’s movie in terms of emotional and dramatic heft (The Host and Mother both by Bong Joon-ho) or sheer white-knuckle intensity (I Saw the Devil by Kim Ji-woon and The Yellow Sea by Na Hong-jin). But one can confidently say that no Asian thriller of the past decade has exerted quite the same feverish grip on fanboy imaginations as Oldboy or generated as much American re-make interest. Dreamworks made an early attempt in 2008 that attracted the interest of Will Smith and Steven Spielberg before getting scuttled amid legal woes related to film rights.

Oldboy_2013_film_posterThat aborted production, which would have mined the original Japanese manga series for inspiration rather than simply updating the Korean film, might well have taken this twisty tale to an intriguing direction. Unfortunately, Spike Lee does the exact thing they planned on not doing. He ‘updated’ the Korean film. And now we have to ask ourselves why did he spend so much time and effort on it? His re-make is replicating a movie that was originally an adaptation of a manga. The result is puzzling and rather lifeless. It only adds a few negligible wrinkles in Park’s storyline while reproducing some of his most iconic images and sequences with uninspired fidelity. (A slight gripe here: Considering that it is a re-make of another movie in which he’s made minimal plot changes and even kept the original name; one would think that Spike Lee would have been a little more generous in the opening credits right? They read: ‘Based on the Korean film, Oldboy’; as though Park Chan-wook was not even part of the equation!)

Moving on and back to the subject of this post: Park Chan-wook’s movie. I fully recommend watching Oldboy. It is original, different, thought-provoking, unique and sometimes just strange. I am yet to see a Hollywood movie produce such a twist of an ending – Se7en comes close. It is a great movie that you won’t regret watching.

Till Next Post!

PS: This was originally meant to be simply a review of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy but slowly became that spiced with a comparison to Spike Lee’s horrendous re-make. I apologise.

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3 thoughts on “Revenge, like octopus, is a dish best served cold!

  1. Alex L

    Great review. I loved the original and abhor Spike Lee’s remake. The worst thing is the original’s solid structure, elaborately crafted, became dramatically flawed mess in this new interpretation. Masterly plot devices, turned inside out, serve here merely as gimmicks. The very retelling is more tragic than it’s subject.

  2. Thirith

    I’m glad you didn’t overplay the remake card in your review. While many reviews are admittedly mercenary affairs, the concept itself doesn’t strike me as all that different from having different productions of the same play. Getting a different perspective on existing material is something I find very interesting – even just getting someone else’s performance of the same character. I’ve seen lots of interesting Hamlets or Richard IIIs – and several bad ones – and I don’t see why film should be different. Yes, bad, lazy remakes should be criticised (like Lee’s) but knee jerk rejections of remakes on principle strike me as fundamentally misunderstanding what originality is and what value it has.

  3. Ray Quint

    i think i might be one of those xenophobic viewers, although maybe that’s not what it is. like i couldn’t get past one minute of the old freaky friday, but found the new one great. it might be just a hunger for high def.

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