Remake Battle: Oldboy vs. New Oldboy

The original Oldboy goes head to head with Spike Lee's remake.

For the most part, I find film remakes to be lazy and uninspired. Unless the film maker has access to modern techniques that weren’t available when the original film came out, or has his own unique vision, it seems redundant to retread over the same territory. Remakes of foreign movies especially irk me—are people really that annoyed by having to read a few subtitles? Does every concept have to pass through the American homogenization machine in order to become palatable to our movie going audience? 

Oldboy (2003)
Now to be fair, in the case of Oldboy, the original film is a Korean adaptation of a Japanese manga by the same name. However, it took the story of a man seeking vengeance to a whole other level and improved it. Director Park Chan-wook has immense style and an eye for gorgeous framing. Oldboy is the second film in The Vengeance Trilogy and it is bookended by Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. All three films in the trilogy are highly regarded, but Oldboy is probably the most infamous one out of the trio.

The film follows the plight of Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), a normal man with an uneventful life. One night while out drinking, he is kidnapped by an unknown assailant and imprisoned in a hotel room with zero human interaction other than a television set. This sets into motion one of the greatest tales of vengeance ever committed to celluloid, one in which each twist and turn is more gut-wrenching than the last. Oh Dae-su isn’t like the cliché “cool guy” that permeates most revenge flicks—he is an everyman trapped in an extraordinary situation. He’s flawed, emotional, confused and desperate. His actions and mental state resemble what the audience must feel while watching him go through his ordeal.

As in most films, there is a romance side-plot in the form of a beautiful young sushi chef named Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung). She is simultaneously worldly yet naïve and is the calming antithesis to Oh Dae-su’s unfocused anguish and anger. Their relationship is portrayed in a delicate and realistic manner which is the perfect accompaniment to the brutal violence of other parts of the film. Oldboy is graphic at times, which is typical for vengeance films—the fight scenes are expertly choreographed and inventive. One such scene, filmed in one take in a long hallway, is one of the coolest action sequences I have ever seen! While it’s not strictly an “action” film per se, the elements that it has from the genre are well done.

"I just heard that hack Spike Lee
is remaking this."
Oldboy is a stunning looking film, with every frame being poster-worthy. It mixes gritty reality with brief jaunts into surrealism while still staying tonally consistent throughout the entire film. Everything is told through the perspective of Oh Dae-su, so the audience only knows what he knows. It makes each revelation that much more impactful because we get to share in the same emotions as the protagonist.  There is more intimacy in being a voyeur as opposed to being a mere spectator, and that’s what makes the climax of this film so devastating. Oh Dae-su and the viewer become one for that split second—a fusion that happens rarely in film.

All of these things intermingle with a sublime musical score by Jo Yeong-wook, who takes a modern approach to traditional noir film scores. The orchestral music is wonderful, but the main theme, played by a solo clarinet, is haunting and unforgettable. It’s a distinctive melody that evokes the mood of the film, even if it is listened to on its own without the images. That is the calling card of an excellent film score, if it can make you recall scenes from the film just by hearing a few musical passages. Each part of Oldboy is iconic and together it combines to make one of the best films to come out of Korea.


Oldboy (2013)
And so, ten years after the original film came out, Hollywood decided that despite Oldboy being an almost universally praised film, it needed a remake for American audiences. A few years earlier there were talks of Steven Spielberg taking the director’s helm with Will Smith playing the lead role, but all that fell through. Eventually Spike Lee took over as director and Josh Brolin took the part of Oh Dae-su (who was renamed to Joe Doucett). Spike Lee was a prolific director in the ‘90s but had been steadily going downhill since then. Fans of the original film were justifiably up-in-arms about the new production especially since the original was so good. However, fan ire has never stopped the remake mechanism before and Oldboy went ahead as scheduled.

What bothers me the most about this particular remake is that it doesn’t improve or add anything new to the original film. It has all the same ingredients but lacks the flavor of the 2003 version. Josh Brolin is a great actor, but his version of the character lacks the extreme anxiety and fragility of the Korean version. He is too calm and collected and just doesn’t make you feel like you are experiencing the events of the film through him. It’s just…bland. Though he isn’t terrible by any means, there is just no passion behind the performance. Samuel L. Jackson, another outstanding actor in his own right, is under-utilized as Chaney, the owner of the facility that imprisons Joe. His character could have been interesting, but they don’t develop him at all and he ends up being a silly and superfluous addition to the story.

"What's in the box?"
"Oh, it's just Josh Brolin."
Interestingly enough, Lee includes little references to the original film which just serve as a sad reminder that the audience member could be watching that superior version instead. The cinematography is functional but very little stands out. It’s like a direct-to-TV movie with a slightly higher budget. They attempt an homage to one of the iconic fight scenes of the Korean film, but it falls flat. Basically, it’s a watered-down version with the concept intact and little else. This isn’t like The Fly (1986), in which David Cronenberg had access to special effects far better than the 1958 version of the film. Spike Lee did nothing to enhance the original idea and added none of his signature style to the look. In fact, if you didn’t tell someone that Lee directed it, they probably would not be able to figure it out on their own. 

Apparently, the studio ended up heavily cutting down Lee’s original version and both Lee and Brolin didn’t like the final product. Be that as it may, I can only judge the film by the version that got released and quite frankly it just doesn’t measure up. It pains me to think that some people may only experience Oldboy in this way being completely ignorant to the fact that it was based on a way better film. It’s a by-the-numbers thriller flick with none of the impact or emotion of the Korean iteration.


The winner of this film battle is Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy by a landslide.  Not only is it a classic revenge film, it’s one of the best Korean films hands-down.  Avoid Spike Lee’s version at all cost or at the very least watch Park Chan-wook’s film first.

-Michelle Kisner

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