New Order

What Asian Film Remakes Like ‘Oldboy’ Get Wrong

Spike Lee’s ‘Oldboy’ exposes what’s wrong with the original Korean cult hit. Hollywood should have just stayed far away.

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/FilmDistrict via Everett

Eight years ago, New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane hoped for an American rendition of Oldboy, if only to reimagine the memorable sight of a man shoving an entire octopus into his mouth while the poor creature’s tentacles cling to his face, begging to crawl back out. “No cephalopods were chewed in the making of this film,” Lane wanted the advisory to read.

That would have been the only reason to remake the film, and the moment doesn’t even feature in Spike Lee’s version. The scene from Park Chan-wook’s original shimmers with an appreciation for life, since the hungry man has just been released from 15 years of solitary imprisonment and can’t help but want to devour the world. But Lee’s product is lifeless and mirthless, and exposes the empty premise at the heart of the parent work. Hollywood should have stayed far away, and it is not the first time.

Consider what The Ring, The Grudge, Dark Water, Pulse, and a slew of other horror remakes have to add. The Japanese horror genre piggy backs on the country’s minimalism and cold exteriors, and the very chill of the society resides in the silence of fear-dominated visions like Ringu, Ju-on: The Grudge, Dark Water, and Pulse. (You can’t confuse christeners of these remakes with people brimming with creativity.) Hollywood, on the other hand, floods the frame with bodies, and requires a Virgil to guide us through hell. The result is gore, as in when Virgil is slashed and ripped to pieces.

What could audiences possibly gain from watching Hollywood personnel go through the motions of adhering to an Asian precursor? Eyeballs, that’s what. Better to bring a different viewpoint to American viewers, who otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to exciting Asian cinema, so the story goes. All of which exposes an underlying problem that is not solved but only exacerbated by the remake circuit: should America be bound by her notorious adversity to read subtitles? Of course not, and there’s no reason that better Japanese and Chinese products not be more aggressively marketed. Cinema is the universal language, and viewers are not baffled by differences in culture but instead celebrate and embrace them.

What distributors insist on doing is to dull that experience. In 2008 and 2009, John Woo’s Red Cliff, though by no means the most adventurous of epics, was ruined when its two-part, 280-minute prototype was cut to one film running 148 minutes. Just last year, Wong Kar-wai’s philosophical treatise in martial arts, The Grandmaster, was cut from 130 minutes to 108 minutes. Distributors insist viewers would not otherwise see the films if they don’t butcher them, but then again we aren’t even allowed near the prime cut of meat. This is a problem of marketing, not of art.

There have been some successful Asian remakes over the years. Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai was made into The Magnificent Seven, and spawned three sequels and a television series. His Yojimbo yielded Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and announced Clint Eastwood as a star, and spanned a trilogy. The Hong Kong smash hit Infernal Affairs by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak became Martin Scorsese’s The Departed and won him Academy Awards for best picture and best director. These are successful Americanizations of the culturally unique ancestors, and they augment what American cinema prizes.

The Magnificent Seven showcased every member of the septet as unique and full-bodied, and made stars of even the secondary performers, like Steve McQueen. A Fistful of Dollars showed Eastwood at his most compelling, and both Kurosawa remakes showcased the American superiority in character-building. Both films prized independence at their moral centers, and made brawn a virtue. But the cinematic merits of the forerunners are far superior. Kurosawa made two movies that showed you how to move—the excitement, joy, hydraulics, and all. (Ozu and Mizoguchi might be superior, and for that reason no one has really tried to remake them, but Kurosawa was the godfather of modern action films.) Yojimbo’s and the samurais’ steps were made lighter by their moral airiness, by the ambiguity of their virtue, and we love these flitting people, whereas we are made to worship the staid statues of the flatfooted magnificent seven and the hard-broiled Stranger.

The Departed gave American audiences what it wanted most: fleshed out characters embodied by stars with strong performances, as they keep their bearings in a morally hazardous universe. It even has a comeuppance ending, and the bad guy is killed. But Infernal Affairs was a pessimistic tragedy that inhabits a world where it is impossible for everyone to get what’s coming to them, and not every crime is avenged. The Departed took its liberties and made a more American-friendly hit, but buried what was most haunting about the predecessor.

Which brings us to the new Oldboy, rooted in gritty realism. It promises character development. Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) starts off as a vile prick prone to calling his ex-wife a bitch. He’s imprisoned for mysterious reasons, and Lee, apparently thinking that the original 15-year sentence is not severe enough, adds five more to make it an even 20, with considerably more screentime devoted to Joe’s incarceration and his development into a supposedly more useful human being. Upon his release he graduates to being just a violent psychopath who wants revenge. But the humorless Doucett was Oh Dae-su in the first film, a somewhat cartoonish character, bumbling and almost lovable, and remains so even after his release. The gorgeous sushi chef he meets and falls in love with, Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung), is equally silly and childish.

What made the original so thrilling, and such a popcorn favorite for the art-house throng, was precisely that it was not to be taken seriously. It is a black comedy of absurdity. You only have to look at Park’s video-game approach to the violent action scenes, where he draws a dotted line from Dae-su’s hammer to a henchman’s skull, as if SportsCenter commentators were analyzing Xs and Os. The original film is a cartoon (Oldboy was first a Japanese manga), and should have stayed that way.

It was no surprise that Park won the Grand Prix at Cannes thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s bidding, he the lover of cinematic exclamations and furious exaggerations. If you’ve heard anything about the original then you know about its outlandish and grotesque violence, and its even more outlandish and grotesque plot twists that display a lack of any emotional coherence other than disgust. At the heart of the Oldboy story sits an empty black void. Park did his best to rescue the diabolical concoction from absurdity. His strategy was tactful finesse, the controlled sophistication of its manga play being the answer to its silly, overcooked plot, which he overcooked some more. Lee makes one valiant attempt at topping Park in this respect, by making the villain a campy Eurotrash clown who’s like the body double for The Big Lebowski’s Knox Harrington, the giggling “video artist” that The Dude calls the friend “with a cleft asshole.” Lee also doubled down on the infamous reason for Oh’s incarceration, making it more implausible, trivial, and extreme, which I didn’t think was possible but apparently is.

Sadly, Lee relieves his “reinterpretation” of all of the predecessor’s comedy. Death and dread dominate this empty void of a film. Watching the new version makes you realize how odious the first rendition was close to becoming. Both of them celebrate repugnance, not for the sake of pushing the envelope but to revel in the base. According to Lee, the remake had a 140-minute cut that he and Brolin preferred, but the distributor slashed it to 105 minutes. For once I agree with the cutting.

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The real problem is the remake industry. The 1983 film Breathless can’t even lick the shoes of its New Wave hero. Twelve Monkeys is not La jetee. There’s no reason to watch Michael Haneke’s own remake of Funny Games, nor is there any point in preferring Let Me In to Let the Right One In. Vanilla Sky is inferior, and so is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Let’s never mention Swept Away again. It is troubling that Hollywood so often adapts foreign movies that turn on a clever premise, as if gimmicks can be imported tariff-free. For once I’d like to see them try to make a winner out of a complete travesty. Is there nothing new under the sun?

I’m sure that it’s not too much to ask American viewers to simply experience cinema in their own language. What happened to the days when Godzilla could be enjoyed as it is?