Friday 6 September 2013

Spike Lee's Oldboy - Can Hollywood Do A Decent Remake?

Spike Lee's Oldboy is released in cinemas soon. Based on the 2003 South Korean film of the same name, the film is about a man who is kidnapped, and locked up for no apparent reason. Twenty years later (in the case of the remake; fifteen for the original), he is released with no explanation, and so begins his mission to find out who did this to him and why.

Being a fan of the original Park Chan-Wook film, I wasn't exactly jumping for joy when I first heard there was going to be a Hollywood reimagining, or whatever they like to call it. What's wrong with using the word "remake" anyway. Spike Lee likes to call it a "reinterpretation".

Here's the recent red-band trailer for the remake:

When I first heard about it a few years back, I wasn't aware if a director had been attached to the film or not, but I'd also heard that there was talk of going back to the original source material; the Japanese manga, which I understand is quite different to the South Korean film adaptation. This, I thought, could be interesting; it could be something better than just the rehashing of the same scenes and the same ideas of the previous film; a trap that so many remakes seem to fall into, leaving them so disappointing to watch, when they fail to surpass the original.

It then transpired that Will Smith was going to star in the remake. I was really disappointed, as I didn't think he suited the role at all, and wasn't sure if he had the acting chops to pull it off. He is everything I didn't want in a remake of Oldboy. To me, he represents the shiny, mainstream aesthetic of the blockbuster movie, and not the challenging, thought provoking, underground attitude to film-making. I kind of dismissed the film after hearing this, and didn't bother to follow how it was shaping up. I've nothing against Will Smith, and have enjoyed some of his work in the past, but I'm not interested in Will Smith's Oldboy.

Later on, however, I heard that Spike Lee was going to direct. I had mixed feelings about this; he's interesting enough, has something to say, and is a well respected director; known for such films as Do The Right Thing (1989), Jungle Fever (1991) and Malcolm X (1992). This couldn't stop me from thinking that the new version was going to struggle to be anything anywhere near as good as the Park Chan-Wook version though. At least they were going to use the original text as a basis for it.

Or so I thought...

I then read somewhere that instead of going back to the original manga, they were going to use the Korean film as inspiration. Again, this just made me think that it was going to be substandard. Why does Hollywood insist on sequels or remakes all the time? I know they're playing it safe, and they need to produce films that they know will sell tickets, especially in today's economic climate; risk is not really an option for the film studios any more, but whenever anything like this happens, I always think the same thing; remake the bad movies and make them better than the original, don't remake the classic ones and settle for something average.

There're are plenty of films that have had a good central plot and some interesting ideas going for them, but maybe their execution didn't quite live up to expectation. So why don't these Hollywood executives try and remake these? Or even, dare I say it, do something original? Imagine that...

Here's the trailer for the original Korean film:

Anyone who decides to remake a critically acclaimed film that is loved and revered by its fans, is setting themselves up for a fall. The original Oldboy film won Grand Prize of the Jury at the Cannes Film Festival, and was also nominated for the Palme d'Or. It has also won numerous other awards, and has generated much discussion among fans; I wonder if this new film will be so greatly received. I'm not saying it won't be, but the people behind the remake are making things very difficult for themselves. The fact that there is such love for the original means that people are going to compare the two, and I would hazard a guess that the preference will probably go to the original. Historically, with other Hollywood remakes of films in a foreign language, I would say that most people seem to prefer the original versions.

Sure, there's probably a new audience who didn't see the original Korean version, and there are those film-goers who aren't fans of reading subtitles, so there is that argument for remaking these films, but seriously, how difficult is it to read the on-screen text and watch what's going on at the same time? I don't see why people can't at least try checking out the original. There's a reason why so many people liked it, and the way I see it, is that they're missing out on a great film. They'll settle for the (usually) inferior remake, be disappointed with it, and then why would they want to try the original? The remake won't have inspired them to do so, that's for sure.

According to Spike Lee, the remake's star Josh Brolin paid Park Chan-Wook a visit to ask for his blessing on their production of the film. Apparently he was told "You and Spike make your own film, don’t remake ours."

In the remake's defence, I would say that the cast assembled for the new film does seem quite decent in my opinion, and I think they will do a solid job, coupled with Spike Lee's assured direction, but when a film is already so good, why even try to remake it?

I hope they can do something new with the film; I probably will still go and see it (and I guess that's the main thing in the studio's mind), but judging by the trailer, they doesn't seem to have done anything new or different. I always try to keep an open mind when watching remakes, or any film for that matter, but so far, history seems to suggest that it won't live up to expectations.

The new film has a staggered release from 10 October depending on the country. It's released here in the UK on 6 December, and is being shown in the USA from 27 November.

Image credit: Header and US Poster - Spike Lee's official Kickstarter for "The Newest Hottest Spike Lee Joint"
Korean Poster - Wikipedia


  1. Remakes just seem so unnecessary to me when the film that's being made can still be classed as contemporary. Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Let The Right One In were remade so quickly after the originals, it seemed it was purely so that an English version (other than dubbed) would be available. I don't see why when the Swedish (or in Oldboy's case Korean) versions are so well crafted. Apparently Mark Whalberg has already bought the rights to Headhunters, so he can remake it - presumably with him as the protagonist.

    The new(-ish) adaptation of True Grit was more welcome, as the medium has moved on somewhat since the original John Wayne version. I guess in a waffly kind of way, what I'm saying is - if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

    1. Haha! Yeah, I agree. Original Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Let The Right One In were brilliant; I can't really comment on the remakes as I didn't bother with them, but they were definitely too soon.

      I'm not really looking forward to Oldboy, but I'll give it a chance.

      Bring on Robocop, Carrie, Mad Max, Point Break, The Crow, et al

      Oh and erm The Fall Guy starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson!

  2. I was horrified when it was announced and wasn't expecting much of the Hollywood attempt to do Oldboy. So I paid no attention. And from watching that trailer for it, I'm expecting even less of it now. I'll probably wait until it gets shown for free on TV on a rainy night when I can't be bothered to change channels.

    I shudder to think about the Hollywood ending.

    1. Yeah, I'm expecting the thing with the original's Mi-do to be missing from the remake...

      We shall see...


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