I’m slightly ashamed to admit this, but I’m beginning to think I subconsciously started this movie blog more for my own benefit rather than that of my beloved readers. Sure it gives me a platform to push my cinematic agenda week after week, but really I see it more as a personal challenge to stay on top of the latest films hitting the theaters and save you a buck or two by sifting the garbage out of your ‘what to watch’ argument.
Where’s the benefit to me other than hedonism you ask? Well since I share my love or distaste for a particular movie with each passing entry, I also get to live vicariously through my reader’s comments and suggestions
Not too long ago, I received a such a suggestion to watch the 2003 film Oldboy from a reader, and I must admit that I instantly fell in love with the surrealism and gritty sensibility that this South Korean mystery-thriller paints with every frame. It had been sitting in my Netflix queue long enough. This is one of those films that will stick with you long after the television has been turned off and could not be more deserving of a recommendation. Oldboy is as haunting a mystery as it is a black comedy of absurdity, and one that I am ecstatic to share with my friends at Drive-in Zeppelin.
Unfortunately there is one minor hiccup that we need to address when talking about Oldboy; namely the 2013 American remake of the same name. You may remember a few months ago when I shared a similar GR for the Swedish film Let the Right One in and subsequent American remake Let Me in. Well, not unlike our valiant vampire virtuoso Tomas Alfredson, director Park Chan-wook also had his beloved masterpiece subjected to the Hollywood treatment at the hands of none other than director Spike Lee.
It’s not that the American version is just simply god-awful, it’s also completely unnecessary. Say what you will about Lee as a director, but his version lacks any discernible value or unique identity. C’est la vie, I suppose we oft have to suffer a world of demons and derivatives for the sake of angels and auteurs alike. I’ll dissect both for your benefit my lovelies, but rest assured – watching the American version is like pulling teeth.
Talk about a segue! Yes, Oldboy (predominantly the Korean version) is not for the faint of heart as it’s full of the outlandish violence that befits a whirlwind revenge story. Though originally based on a Japanese manga, Chan-wook introduces us in his version to Dae-su Oh (Choi Min-sik) – a womanizing businessman that starts the film off confined to a local police station after he is picked up for drunk and disorderly behavior. After being bailed out by his friend, Dae-su proceeds to call his daughter to wish her a happy third birthday having already picked her up a last minute gift in the form of a pair of strap-on angel wings
While the friend takes over the phone call to assure Dae-su’ s wife that they will be returning home soon, Dae-su is kidnapped off the street. Upon waking, he finds himself imprisoned in a grungy prison that resembles a hotel room straight out of the 1970’s with no explanation. For a period of 15 years, he is held in this private hell, with his only connection to the outside world being a small television set that is seemingly programmed with material chosen by his unknown jailers. He is fed the same meal of dumplings day after day, gassed when he becomes suicidal or unkempt, and he generally crumbles under the mental anguish of imprisonment.
Early on he learns via a news report that his wife has been murdered and that he is the prime suspect, although his captivity obviously precludes that being the case. His daughter Yeun-hee is subsequently sent to live with foster parents in Sweden. This furthers his descent into madness. Eventually he combats the insanity by hardening himself through thoughts of revenge and physical training, until one day, he is unexpectedly released back into the world without explanation or provocation. Shortly after he receives a cellphone and a wallet from an unknown man on the street and the mystery is afoot.
After wandering into a sushi bar and meeting the lovely Mi-do ( Hye-jeong Kang), Dae-su is contacted on the cellphone by a mysterious man named Woo-jin that claims to be his captor. Woo-jin offers Dae-su a handsome reward and the promise that Mi-do will not be killed if our protagonist can solve the mystery of his imprisonment within five days. Upon completion the villain has promised to kill himself. Through his adventures we find our hero Dae-su devouring an entire live squid, fighting off hordes of goons in one of the most beautiful and iconic fight scenes in all of cinema, and encountering the heart-wrenching and grotesque plot twists that inevitably befall him – but more on that later.
And that’s the movie Oldboy for you – minus the other 90% of the movie that I refuse to spoil. It has the whispery allure of a cult classic and the highly stylized cinematography and poetics that seem to characterize a lot of South Korean cinema. Admittedly, I am still a novice when it comes to venturing into Korean or for that matter East Asian film, but this was not the first time I had been charmed by the works of director Park Chan-wook. Several months ago I had delightfully stumbled upon a film called I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK, which unto itself is more than worthy of a GR title, but I’ll save that one for a rainy day.
Chan-wook first captivated me in Cyborg with his use of filmic exclamations and an almost whimsical and surrealist approach to the telling of an already absurd story. Essentially the heroine in that film is a mental patient that believes she is a cyborg capable of machine-gunning her enemies and being recharged via wall-socket. Naturally you can imagine the expressionism that stories like this can have, and Oldboy does not disappoint with its almost videogame-like approach to action scenes. It reminded me a lot of how Edgar Wright uses everything at his disposal as a filmmaker to add sight, sound, and emotion to an otherwise cookie-cutter scene of violence.
Apparently gimmicks and style can’t be imported tariff-free like plots, as director Spike Lee manages to only craft an uninspired carbon copy of Oldboy in his 2013 remake. While the story and twists are more or less the same, the most notable differences in the American version include the hero Joe Doucett (played by Josh Brolin) being imprisoned for 20 years instead of 15, and the female companion Mi-do being replaced with a medical volunteer named Marie Sebastian (Elizabeth Olsen). Doucett has a lot more exposition in his introduction, which ultimately hurts the character because he’s just presented as a raging alcoholic and kind of an ass. Dae-su appears to just be a random guy that had a little too much to drink and we feel the mystery and burden of his imprisonment more than Doucett’s.
Unlike Lee’s other films, you won’t find a sliver of social commentary or personal enrichment to the story. You’ll get his trademark Dolly Shot, but other than the inclusion of an underused Samuel L. Jackson, Lee’s version leaves much to be desired. There are a few references to the Korean version such as a the angel wings and the squid – and I at least appreciated the attempt at preserving the spirit of the film – but it still seems grossly unnecessary since it was bound to end up like the Hindenburg when it hit theaters a few years ago.
As I mentioned before, both versions are layered with grotesque violence and tackle some very taboo subjects (which ones you’ll have to see for yourself!), but I feel it’s important to distinguish that the Korean version -despite being the more violent of the two – does not indulge as much as its American counterpart in the actual presentation of violence. Much like in Let the Right One in compared to Let Me in, the Korean Oldboy tends to leave its gore up to the audience to infer. Yes we see Dae-su preparing to extract the teeth of one of his jailers for information, but the act itself is left off-screen minus the agonized screams of his victim. Quite opposite in nature, we clearly witness Josh Brolin’s character cutting pieces out of Samuel L. Jackson’s neck to “make it easier to rip his fucking head off”
It’s ironic because the Korean version is the far more brutal of the two, and yet, the majority of the violence is left up to the imagination of the audience. Sure you’ll still get some good old-fashioned head smashing with hammers, but for the most part it’s what is felt off-screen that yields the most emotion. Now I will say that if you don’t particularly like violence then this definitely is not a movie for you as there’s a lot of it. As previously mentioned, this film is also famous for one of the most exhausting and well-choreographed fight scenes in modern cinema – which you can spoil for yourself here. It’s shot in one long and claustrophobic take that took nearly three days to film.
The American version naturally butchers this work of art and chops it up into an almost comical series of broken cuts that features goons that look like they belong in a West Side Story rumble instead of an action-thriller. With Dae-su’s battle, we feel every strike, every punch, every labored breath – and it makes it so much more rewarding to watch his unflinching resolve for revenge see him through to the end of the battle. Seeing Josh Brolin get hit by a 2 x 4 and not even wince in pain is just goofy and unbalanced for a supposedly dramatic fight scene.
I will admit I’m being a little unfair to Brolin, as his performance was at least in the realm of believable. I would have expected his character to be a bit more confused by the technological advancements made in the 21st century after having been imprisoned for twenty years, but a bad movie is just a bad movie no matter what filter you see it through. Elizabeth Olson isn’t bad as the female companion, but I can’t really recall if she had any real development compared to her Korean counterpart Hye-jeong Kang (Mi-do the sushi girl).
Before we get into the real star of the show, I suppose I should mention the villains and their respective performances. If you’re unlucky enough to have seen the 2013 remake already, you probably immediately recognized Sharlto Copley from District 9 as the almost pathetic and comical European villain. Honestly I’m not sure what he was going for in his portrayal of Adrian the mystery man, but it is laughably bad. Conversely, Ji-tae Yu (Woo-jin) – despite his unrealistic age difference to our hero – is the epitome of a cold and calculating villain. He radiates malevolence and relishes in the psychological torture of our hero Dae-su.
Both Min-sik Choi and Ji-tae Yu manage to steal the show by demonstrating their versatility onscreen, but it is Min-sik that captivates us with the tortured and often ambiguous expressions of Dae-su. In his madness, he takes the framed quote on the wall – ‘Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone’ – quite literally and it’s a repeated mystery throughout the movie whether Dae-su is genuinely happy or forcibly repressing his anguish and mental instability.
So there you have it. A cult classic that leaves the audience spellbound and eerily haunted by what has just transpired before their eyes. Oldboy (the Korean one) is the golden egg you seldom stumble upon and one where you are overwhelmed with masterful visuals, an emotional and engaging soundtrack, a suspenseful and elegantly told story, and rich multi-dimensional characters. This film easily rocketed to the top of my personal favorites list and it is my hope that it will enchant you as well.
The Bottom Line:
Do you have a penchant for hammers and violence? What about surrealist foreign cinema? Yes unfortunately it has subtitles, but it also has an emotionally haunting soundtrack to distract you from reading. This is the revenge flick you’ve been waiting for, but have been too sheltered to watch. Don’t waste your time on the American version even though they’re both on Netflix. Trust me. It’s suspenseful, dark, and there’s hypnotism and giant ants riding the subway. It has all the hallmarks of a Salvador Dali painting with a video-game flair in its cinematography. Note: this is not a movie for Mama Zeppelin though!
– Oldboy (South Korean)
– Oldboy (American)
You’ll have to forgive the fact that this isn’t an official trailer or a particularly good one at that. Trailers from 12 years ago aren’t easy to find. Hope you like Marilyn Manson!