10 Years Later, Is Oldboy a Newboy?
For many filmgoers, Oldboy (South Korea, 2003) is treasured as the ultimate revenge fantasy thriller. Violent and sadistic, many critics reviewed it favorably, saying there was a point to its mayhem. At the very least, it was praised on all accounts as being something different from traditional Hollywood action fare. In fact, watching Oldboy makes you think it’s a movie that could never be properly remade in the United States. Unfortunately, as history has demonstrated time and time again, that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t try to do it.
Oldboy (2013) seems as ill-conceived a remake as there could possibly be. Imagine my surprise when, until a specific point in the movie, I really liked the new version. As much as director Spike Lee might proclaim his Oldboy to be a “reimagining”, not a “remake, the two movies offer the same story with the same major plot points (again, until a specific point in the movie). Oh Dae-su/Joe Doucett, is kidnapped and held in captivity for 15/20 years. When released, he vows to exact revenge… if he can figure out who did this to him.
For me, the first third of Oldboy (2013) is a better movie than the first third of Oldboy (2003). For one thing, this part of the story is longer. It takes more time showing us that Joe is an unlikeable guy. It also reveals more clever details about the room in which he is imprisoned and better conveys the passage of time. The net effect is that we see a stronger development of the character that gives more purpose (and believability) to his subsequent actions. These are not necessarily things missing from the original, but they are definitely more subtle and concise.
Josh Brolin’s portrayal of Joe Doucett is different from that of Min-sik Choi’s as Oh Dae-su. Let’s say he’s more familiar as, first, a drunken ad man who thinks nothing of hitting on a client’s woman before the ink is even dry on their contract, and then, a broken man who turns to self-discipline and determination to take back control of his life. Choi is simply wild-eyed crazy most of the time. This is not a bad thing for the original Oldboy; it’s just different. He’s perfect as part of the operatic style of director Chan-wook Park.
Where the remake of Oldboy falls apart for me, and boy, does it fall apart for me, is with the villain and the reason for his victim’s capture and imprisonment. In the original, Woo-jin Lee is a handsome, confident and powerful man (Ji-tae Yu) who is terrifying in his intensity. In the remake, “The Stranger” is a hideous caricature of a man (Sharlto Copley) who is as ridiculous as he is over the top. All that’s lacking from his performance is a mustache so he can twirl it with his blood-stained fingertips.
From there, it becomes apparent that we just don’t have the balls in the States to go as far as they do in other countries. A detail of Woo-jin Lee’s/The Stranger’s motivation is changed slightly from the original. It may seem insignificant, but for me, it means there isn’t enough of a reason for him to do what he did to Joe Doucett. Perhaps that’s why Spike Lee made The Stranger crazier in the remake. In the original, what happened between the two in the past has consequence significant enough that Woo-jin Lee doesn’t need to be as crazy to do what he did.
Then, there’s the ending. I probably don’t need to tell you that we like our happy endings in the States. And, to be honest, the ending of Oldboy (2013) does leave me feeling better than the ending of Oldboy (2003). The original includes a particular plot point that explains more about how Woo-hin Lee was able to orchestrate what he did to Oh Dae-su. I don’t think it’s necessary and the remake wisely jettisons it. It ties into its ending and, while the characters in both versions ultimately make their own decisions, it actually seems more natural in the remake.
At the risk of blasphemy, I must say that Oldboy (2013) is not all bad. However, when it is bad, it’s really bad. Even so, there are elements of Oldboy (2003) that aren’t necessarily that terrific for me either. This results in a case where I might suggest combining parts of both movies to construct one perfect experience. In lieu of that, I’m going to recommend watching both of them to appreciate their complementing features. However, another thing that’s different for us in the States is that there can be only one winner. Therefore, I have no choice but to prefer the original.