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Spike Lee's "Oldboy": A fresh take on a Korean classic

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When news of an American remake of the 2003 Korean film "Oldboy" hit the presses, fans of the cult classic expressed mixed reactions at best. When news broke that Steven Spielberg would direct and Will Smith would be the star, many fans were outraged. After Spielberg and Smith backed out and Spike Lee was announced as director, however, anger turned to interest, and fans of the original began expressing a bit more interest. While fans of the original remained skeptical, some expressed a bit of optimism and were assuaged when Lee announced he had no intention of Americanizing the film.

Much of the concern about the remake is due to the fact that "Oldboy" is a quintessentially Korean film. While revenge themes are popular in American films, they are generally given a bit more sophistication and depth in East Asian cinema. Whereas American films tend to use revenge as a means to bring violence to the screen, Korean films spend more time dwelling on the power of revenge and the often unsettling feelings it brings. Korean revenge films rarely have truly happy endings, and the original "Oldboy" is no exception. Only intrepid directors such as Quentin Tarantino can pull of the subtlety expressed in East Asian revenge cinema. Fortunately, Spike Lee has shown a similar ability to successfully take on challenging scripts.

The protagonist in the Korean version is only introduced briefly before his mysterious captivity begins. In Lee's interpretation, Josh Brolin's character is given a bit more development. Oh Dae-su, the Korean protagonist, is shown as an alcoholic; Joe Doucett, the American protagonist, is shown as an alcoholic with some serious personality defects. He is clearly meant to be an antihero in both interpretations, but his unpleasant side is made clearer in Lee's version. Revenge films must show scenes featuring the protagonist preparing to take revenge, and Doucett's more fleshed-out introduction makes these scenes even more powerful.

Perhaps the most memorable scene of the Korean film features a lengthy fight that involves a hammer and was filmed in one shot. Instead of opting to reshoot this scene as it appeared in the original, Lee decided to take a less horizontal approach. Fortunately, the studio graced Lee with the budget and time he needed to pull the scene off appropriately. Unfortunately, they decided to place a single cut into the scene, a move that is sure to upset fans of the original. Still, Lee's shooting is brilliant, and both first-time viewers and those who've seen the original are sure to applaud his efforts. Should Lee get a director's cut release for home media, however, fans will want to check out the scene as envisioned by Lee.

Many were concerned that the film would lose some of its edginess in the translation, and some memorable moments in the original have been left out. No live octopuses were harmed in Lee's version, and scenes of impromptu dentistry have likewise been removed. The content that replaces these scenes, however, is comparably dark if less shocking, and all but the most desensitized viewers will finding themselves recoiling on occasion. The true darkness of the original is present in the remake, and a particular element that shocked viewers of the original far more than any live-octopus-eating scene could remains intact. Doucett's reaction to the disturbing revelation differs significantly, however, and viewers will have to determine which ending they prefer.

Before decrying that any change to the original is bad, viewers should understand the genesis of the Korean film. The screenplay was based on a Japanese graphic novel of the same name, and the content of the Japanese iteration differs starkly from the Korean interpretation. While violence is certainly present in the graphic novel, it is less graphic and less prevalent; the body count increased dramatically in the translation to Korean cinema. The most disturbing elements were introduced only when "Oldboy" moved off the pages and onto the big screen. While Lee and his team of screenwriters clearly chose the Korean film as their primary source, some may find the film to be a bit closer to the Japanese manga.

Spike Lee is best known for his ability to direct his own material effectively. Over the years, however, Lee has shown an ability to direct a wide range of different genres well. In a break from his other films, "Oldboy" is not introduced as a "Spike Lee Joint," and "Oldboy" (watch an exclusive clip here) is perhaps the best example of his ability to embrace themes foreign to him as a writer and director. While some will undoubtedly claim any remake of the Korean film is blasphemous, Lee has once again show his ability to create effective cinema, and his growth and artistic talent remain unchecked.


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