Take 2

‘Oldboy’: Spike Lee & Josh Brolin's Thriller Remake

Spike Lee’s Oldboy trailer is out this week, but will it keep the tone of the original?


The first poster for Spike Lee’s version of the South Korean classic Oldboy was revealed today, but the red band trailer—out Wednesday—will be the real first look at whether or not such a controversial and celebrated Asian film can be adapted by Hollywood for a wider audience.

Without spoiling the original, Oldboy (based on the Japanese manga of the same name) is the story of a man who is abducted one night while stumbling home drunk to his young daughter’s birthday party. He is kept in captivity for 15 years without explanation, and spends all his time training in martial arts and torturing himself over the identity and motivations of his captor. One day, he wakes up in a suitcase on top of a roof with instructions to find out why he was imprisoned. The poster for the remake captures this scene, showing star Josh Brolin emerging from a suitcase.

The film was a critical and financial success, with a Quentin Tarantino-led jury awarding it the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival for its dark humor, eye-opening violence, shocking twists, and stylish noir atmosphere. It’s since become a cult classic. Oldboy is the second film in a trilogy by acclaimed South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-Wook (Stoker), along with Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, and together the three movies are called “The Vengeance Trilogy.”

It was first released in South Korea back in 2003, which means the American version will come to us ten years after the original. That seems like quite a long lapse in this day and age of rapid-fire foreign remakes (see: Let Me In). Why did it take so long for such a popular foreign film to get the Hollywood treatment?

The Oldboy remake has been in the works for years and suffered all kinds of development hell. Many cringed when it was announced that the movie would feature family-friendly star Will Smith with the even more PC Steven Spielberg in the director’s chair. The project was declared dead in 2010, leaving many fans relieved.

A year later, Spike Lee was announced as the new director with Josh Brolin as a possible lead, but the production had trouble procuring an antagonist. The part was turned down by Christian Bale, Colin Firth and Clive Owen before finally going to Sharlto Copley, best known for playing Wikus in the sci-fi film District 9.

Why has it proven so tough to adapt Oldboy? Part of the problem, and the reason why so many actors and a director like Spielberg would turn away from the project, is how gruesome and complex the film is and how difficult it would be to retain the wild spirit of the original—made possible by the film’s gung-ho lead, Min-sik Choi.

In the original film, there’s a famous scene that sees the main character consume a live octopus, it’s tentacles wriggling out of his mouth. And since the director wasn’t able to capture the shot in just one take, four octopi had to be eaten alive by Choi. One of the most famous scenes is an intricately-choreographed corridor fight between the hammer-wielding protagonist and a gang of thugs. It spans several minutes and was shot as one long, continuous take. Most of the stunts were handled by the actors themselves. And then there’s the question of the film’s tragically ambiguous ending, which will remain unspoken.

Spike Lee has tried to assuage fears by saying that his version of Oldboy would be a “reinterpretation” rather than a direct remake, and would remain closer to the original source material—the Japanese manga. In an interview, Elizabeth Olsen tried to distance the upcoming movie from its source material, saying, “People who are fans will appreciate some of our homages to the original, but expectations for it to be the same thing should be killed, and people should be excited to see something different.”

Reinterpretation or not, the two versions share the same general premise—a man mysteriously imprisoned who must find out why. Past that, it remains to be seen what, if anything, is held over from the beloved cult classic.