When Searching for the Truth, You Might Not Like What You Find: Review of Spike Lee’s “Oldboy”

By Vincent Abbatecola

unnamedIf you see only one foreign film in your life, Chan-wook Park’s 2003 revenge thriller from South Korea, “Oldboy,” which is based on the manga by Nobuaki Minegishi and Garon Tsuchiya, is a movie you must consider. It is dark, brooding, unsettling and a grim portrait of what people will do for payback, a cinematic plummet into a madness from which an exit seems impossible.

I knew about the upcoming Americanized retelling when I watched Park’s film for the first time last year. Afterwards, it was difficult to imagine any director being able to match its intensity. However, while watching the new version, my doubt diminished as the film proceeded.

Directed by Spike Lee, the film is not a shot-for-shot remake, but rather a worthy reimagining of this disturbing tale of revenge. Lee does tribute to the original, but this new version is its own movie and is distinguishable from Park’s work.

While stumbling home one night after having too much to drink, Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) wakes to find himself in a strange motel room. He soon realizes that his room is actually a prison cell, with a television being his only access to what’s happening in the outside world. He has no idea who is holding him, why he is there, or how long he will remain.

Twenty years later, he awakens inside a trunk in the middle of a field, equally clueless as to why he was released. With the help of a mysterious girl named Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), Joe sets out to uncover the identity of his captor and the reason behind his imprisonment.

Josh Brolin and Min-sik Choi (the protagonist, Oh Dae-su, from the original) present different interpretations of the character. Choi’s performance was more emotionally raw, whereas Brolin is more of a gruff, rough-and-tough fighter. Brolin’s fighting is so skillful and brutal that he could be a candidate for the next “Expendables” film. However, he can sometimes come off as cold and unsympathetic because of his violent persona. As far as the film’s conclusion goes, the way Choi reacts to the big reveal is a total gut-punch that’s hard to shake off, whereas Brolin, although obviously disgusted, doesn’t exactly reach the heights of horrific realization that Choi accomplished.

Elizabeth Olsen, who plays Marie, is the American counterpart to the role of Mi-do, who was played by Hye-jeong Kang in the South Korean version. Just like Kang, Olsen presents her character as a highly mature individual with a warm, caring nature.

Sharlto Copley’s Adrian Pryce, however, is the one who nearly strolls away with the show. Ji-tae Yu’s portrayal of the villain in the original (the name of whom was Lee Woo-jin) was chilling and quietly sinister, but Copley’s interpretation is much more threatening. With his slicked-back hair, spiffy wardrobe, accent and creatively cut facial hair, he has all the makings of a James Bond villain.

Copley effortlessly conveys his character’s charisma, twisted nature and dedication in carrying out his revenge, resembling what the devil might look like in human form. The versatility of the character allows Copley to successfully go from fits of rage to unsettling calm, and just as Pryce is absorbed in his plan, Copley is absorbed in his role.

One memorable sequence from the original is the brutal and beautifully choreographed fight scene, all in a single shot. Similar to the original, he films it all in one long take with Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography, but instead of having the whole fight take place on one level of a prison, it’s staged to go from one level to the one below it.

Speaking of the cinematography, there is also the use of high-angle shots. As we’re positioned above the action, the shots create a sense of vertigo. This method of shot composition helps to emphasize the strange nature of the events surrounding the main character.

The set design by Sharon Seymour helps to further enhance the characters, especially Adrian. There’s a scene in the film where, after enjoying a swim in his apartment’s pool, he retreats to a spacious living room with walls made up of almost floor-to-ceiling length windows and a huge television that allows Adrian to watch his prey. Here, the viewer has a perfect example of how the set design emphasizes the nature of the character occupying that space, echoing what was done in the original.

This setting compliments Adrian’s prying sensibilities. Similar to movies like “Saw,” with their morally-unhinged and voyeuristic antagonists, Oldboy features a villain who is always watching the main character, taking seemingly innocent victims and shoving them to the edge.

In his narrative, Protosevich takes out some scenes from the original and adds some that are completely new, like the first 10 minutes that go deep into Joe’s personality and family life. While doing justice to the original, Protosevich still takes the risk of bringing the story in his own direction for his approach. It is a risk that fully pays off.

Mark Protosevich’s screenplay faithfully follows the beats of the original, while also succeeding in not making the film feel like an unnecessary rehash for American audiences. For instance, this remake provides flashbacks between the two opposing individuals, but adds interesting and disturbing differences from the original.

The ending, while sharing fundamental similarities with the original, is uniquely presented by Lee. Those who have seen the original know about Adrian’s past, but by the time the full reason for his motives are brought out and the big reveal arrives, it is even more twisted than that of the original.

Although Lee amps up certain scenes’ violence, he does not glorify it. This is a tale of revenge, the grim nature of the story calls for some degree of brutality. Hence, the protagonist does what he has to do to get to the villain. There is a reason for the violence and Lee understands that.

Even if you already know the twist ending, the uncomfortable visuals he uses and the tension he builds between the characters is enough to get you as nervous as you were the first time you experienced the original and were wondering what was going to happen. If you haven’t seen the original, you will be just as nervous during the build-up, maybe more so. Lee has made a movie in which he shows his dedication to both newcomers and fans of the original.

“Oldboy” will take you to some dark places, but just like Joe in his quest to find the truth, you will not find closure until you find answers.

Final grade: A-

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