Oldboy (2013)

Director:  Spike Lee
Cast:  Josh BrolinElizabeth OlsenSamuel L. Jackson, Sharlto Copley
Plot:  Obsessed with vengeance, a man sets out to find out why he was kidnapped and locked into solitary confinement for 20 years without reason.

Genre:  Action / Drama / Mystery
Awards:  -
Runtime:  104min
Rating:  R21 for strong brutal violence, disturbing images, some graphic sexuality and nudity, and language.

As I watch Spike Lee's Oldboy, I am constantly reminded of the genius of Park Chan-wook.  It is impossible to forget Park's twisted masterpiece, one of the great contemporary classics of South Korean cinema.  The original Oldboy (2003) was a jolt for the senses and a joy to savour despite its unflinching violence and unorthodox treatment of the theme of vengeance. 

On the other hand, the remake by Lee is half-decent at best as it follows the trajectory of the original story, though not entirely.  It somewhat loses the poetic quality of the original along the way, but at least from what I have seen, it doesn't attempt to top Park's work, which is a good omen.

A key indicator is the famous corridor fight sequence that was shot in one long take in the original.  To his credit, Lee doesn't indulge in imitation.  He envisions it similarly in a long take, but its execution is slightly different.  The cinematography remains generally solid with Sean Bobbitt (Hunger, 2008; Shame, 2011) at the helm with Lee's film looking as sparkling as the original. 

Josh Brolin stars as the man who gets locked up in a room for two decades, only to be released to find out the truth of his captivity.  There are delicious supporting roles for Samuel L. Jackson and Sharlto Copley, and for most parts, the performances by the cast are quite excellent, though Brolin does indulge in some theatrics in the first third of the film.

While the narrative plays out similarly to Park's version, it doesn't start well.  It feels lethargic and doesn't capture the frenetic energy of the original.  However, because of the strength of the story, Lee's film manages to grow in confidence, and I must say it becomes more engaging than expected. 

The violence in the new Oldboy seems overkill though – cue what a hammer and a shotgun can do to one's head.  Park, on the other hand, uses violence less sensationally – there's meaning in the brutality, and this is what makes the Korean version so much more viscerally resonant and powerful. 

At the end of the day, Spike Lee's work will always be judged against the original.  Perhaps it is best to judge the film rather than filmmaker, because he has been receiving an unfair amount of hate as a result of remaking Oldboy, and it doesn’t help that Lee has a polarizing personality with a history of pissing people off, most notably Quentin Tarantino – Lee urged moviegoers to boycott Django Unchained (2012) when it was released.

Verdict:  Spike Lee's remake of Park Chan-wook's twisted masterpiece starts off lethargically, but grows in confidence with its material, though it is still many miles away from the standard of the South Korean original.

GRADE: C+ (6.5/10 or 3 stars)

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Joanne Ischy said…
Saw the film today and feel brutalized. Wish I had stayed at home.
Eternality Tan said…
Hi Joanne, I am sorry to hear that. I think the very notion of remaking Park's masterpiece is itself already flawed. Spike Lee doesn't convince us otherwise.

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