I find remakes fascinating because they provide an opportunity – an array of differences for all to see – and it’s the critic’s responsibility to ask the why’s rather than dumbly state them.
The first half an hour of Spike Lee’s reinterpretation of the Korean classic is glorious, and sets the scene for what could have been the film of the year. A blast of a shotgun in the face of our “post-racial society”, the white man has fallen from his position of entitlement. Brolin’s protagonist, an advertising executive, desperately turns to the avarice he once thrived upon. His humiliation is complete when he fails to con Lance Reddick’s successful black man and take possession of his girlfriend. This embroidering, far removed from the anonymous drunk of the original, is scintillating. This is not a Korean film any more. This is a representation of a country, built on slavery, successful through exploitation, losing its sense of domination over the world.
Racism, once out in the open, is inevitably pushed into the unconscious. In Do the Right Thing, the owner of the pizzeria arguably reveals his true nature in the heat of the night. In Oldboy, the secrets of the shadow rise up after the protagonist is mysteriously imprisoned. To emphasise the old guard’s fall from grace, the sentence is extended from 15 in the original, to 20 years, Joe Doucett forced to watch the world change around, and without, him. The tables have turned. His prison cell is dressed up as a hotel room, but there’s no doubting what it really is. He is powerless, subjected to someone else’s control and manipulation, taken from his home and family. He is forced to eat the same meals every day (Chinese food, which disgusts him), delivered through the door along with a bottle of vodka for the pathetic alcoholic. Echoes of Malcolm X aplenty, the ‘poison’ given to keep Doucett down. Skip to 1:17:
Of course, the narrative dictates that the protagonist must have his revenge. In the Korean film, his inner violence is released to a shocking level. This is maintained, but with a strong racial element. In Die Hard, John McClane was dwarfed by the Nakatomi tower, a symbol of America’s lost economic superiority. On a personal level he has lost his wife to careerism within the Japanese corporation. He must reassert his dominance through violence, redirected at America’s other war enemies, Hans Gruber’s band of German terrorists. By the end, the baddies are dead, the building blown up, and the marriage restored after our ‘cowboy’ hero saves his wife through the destruction of her career-symbol wristwatch.
Oldboy is far more self-conscious. The revenge fantasy allows the audience its sense of reassertion of masculine power, an ever popular theme, but Lee’s casting lays a trap. The white audience, if it is unaware that it is watching a race-reversed reenactment of slavery, might gleefully indulge in the brutal reprisal against various non-white goons including Samuel L. Jackson’s prison owner. The latter’s punishment is not in self-defence. It is slow, calculated and sadistic. One cannot watch the scenes without participating in some way. The critics seem to have been somewhat uncomfortable watching this film, and that’s testament to Lee’s darkly inspired, uh, execution.
Sadly, the film never lives up to its potential, with a lack of focus after Sharlto Copley’s camper-than-camp villain emerges. While it’s admirable and surprising that such dark material could be reproduced in an American production, Lee’s remake is held back by the original’s narrative machinations, awkwardly taking us through the narrative beats. The stilted pacing suggests a going-through-the-motions, but given the director and star’s unhappiness with the theatrical cut – as opposed to a rumoured 3 hour version – one suspects that there was a lot more meat on the bone. It remains to be seen whether the director’s cut – if it gets a release – will maintain the film’s power to the end. One thing’s for sure. Oldboy is 2013’s great underrated, a fascinating, provocative and at times brilliant artwork that will reward your attention.
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