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Action Alphabet: 'Oldboy (2013)'

With so many brilliant filmmakers emerging from various Asian countries making so many extraordinary movies, it’s a wonder that American filmmakers are so insistent that the only good version of a movie is an English-language version. I personally don’t so much mind the “remake” aspect of it except that few ever take the chance to re-imagine the material. If I’m being absolutely serious, I would probably choose Park Chan-Wook’s original 2005 Korean iteration of the Japanese comic book adaptation but for this article I chose the remake specifically because it is on the right trajectory, even if it ultimately misses the mark. Spike Lee puts aside his characteristic self-righteousness and hyper-self-awareness for this movie, and instead sinks in to a self-abandon and irreverence that suits him remarkably well. Oldboy is twisted and ridiculous and saturated in sex and violence and obsession: here, for maybe the first time ever, Lee lets the darkness and tragedy permeate his movie without feeling the need to inject it with some pre-destined meaning – and its revelatory.

Photos from 'Oldboy (2013)'
Photos from 'Oldboy (2013)'
Josh Brolin in 'Oldboy (2013)'

The film tells the story of drunken lothario ad man Joe Doucette (Josh Brolin) who is one day inexplicably locked inside a windowless hotel room for twenty years after he is framed for the rape and murder of his estranged wife. One day out of the blue, he wakes up inside a steamer trunk in the middle of a green field, clean-shaven and dressed in a sharp Johnny-Cash-esque black suit with a cell phone and a banker’s bag full of cash. Joe immediately sets out on a mission to find his daughter, but is interrupted when he is contacted by his mysterious jailer (Sharlto Copley) who promises him a new life and twenty million dollars-worth of diamonds if he can figure who his jailer is and why he locked him up for two decades in two days. With the help of lovely young drug clinician Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), Joe slowly starts to put the puzzle pieces together leading him closer to finding his daughter, but also taking him down a path of irreversible emotional repercussions. Lee and his screenwriter Mark Protosevich take a much more straightforward approach to their version of the story, trimming off most of the fantastical eccentricities of the Korean version (No, unfortunately Brolin doesn’t get to eat a live octopus) and filling the gaps of interest with heightened and elaborate color palates and displays of gore on par with the bloodiest of horror films. It is such a good base for a wholly unique vision of the story, but it is never taken quite far enough, perhaps because Lee isn’t quite used to being so unabashedly unforgiving like contemporary filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino or Nicholas Winding Refn. I will say one thing for this version though – I vastly prefer the American ending to the Korean ending for its contriteness and emotional catharsis.

When you compare the mirror scenes of the 2005 and 2013 versions (I don’t really like measuring remakes and originals against each other, but these two are so similar its easier to provide a context for the criticism when looking at them back to back), he sequences of action do not differ from what they are, but they do differ in their presentation. The infamous long-shot hammer fight is one of the few scenes in the whole film that, though it seems nearly identical, is subtly its own hard-hitting beast. It, like every other moment of violence in the film, has an overwhelming sense of weight and terror with chillingly impactful sound design that blasts full-force with every thwack and thud through your nerves and bones. Come to think of it, save for a brawl with some rowdy teenagers (also gruesome with that stranger-than-fiction realism that bleeds into fantasy), the hammer fight is the only real action sequence of the whole movie – but its such a feast that is mere inclusion is enough for the film, though it can be called by many genre names, to be hailed as an action movie.