Original Versus Remake: OldBoy

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

Remakes–they’re everywhere nowadays. Sometimes they’re interesting improvements over the original films, like the Coen Brothers’ interpretation of True Grit. And sometimes they’re incredibly pointless and stupid, like Jan De Bont’s take on The Haunting. Either way, remakes have been around for as long as there’s been cinema, and they don’t appear to be going away anytime soon.

But what causes a remake to succeed or fail? Why did Martin Scorsese’s remake of Infernal Affairs win Best Picture, and William Friedkin’s re-imagining of 12 Angry Men go completely unnoticed? Why do most people regard John Carpenter’s The Thing as superior to the original, black-and-white movie, and Tim Burton’s Planet Of The Apes as inferior to the film that came before it? To find the answers to these, and several more questions, I’ve decided to introduce a new segment on my blog called Original Versus Remake, or OVR. In it, I’ll compare an older film to it’s remake, and try to unpack why one is regarded as superior to the other. And what better film to start this new segment off with than OldBoy, a movie that has not only been remade, but I’ve also already reviewed here on this blog? (Well, okay, there are probably several others that would be just as good, but this is my blog, and I want to begin with OldBoy.)

Anyway, in case you haven’t heard of it, OldBoy is a 2003 South Korean revenge film. The basic plot goes like this; a drunken businessman is kidnapped on his daughter’s fifth birthday, and imprisoned in a cell that resembles a hotel room for fifteen years. During this time, he learns that, out in the real world, his wife has been murdered, and the police believe he’s the one who killed her. Then, after more than a decade behind bars, he is released, and sets out on a quest to prove his innocence, and find the one who locked him up. His searching leads him to a former classmate, who explains that he locked the businessman away because, when they were in high school, the businessman saw him having incestuous sex with his sister, and told everyone about it. The sister killed herself because she couldn’t endure all the slut-shaming she was being put through, and this, in turn, caused her brother/lover to go crazy with revenge. The businessman apologizes for what he did, but says that the classmate should kill himself, as he’s had his revenge. The classmate then reveals what his true revenge was, getting the businessman to unwittingly commit incest with his daughter. See, while searching for the man who locked him up, the businessman met, and slept with, a young woman, who was actually his daughter. This revelation shocks and horrifies the businessman, who cuts out his own tongue as a sign of penance. The film ends ambiguously, with the businessman getting a hypnotist to alter his memories so he doesn’t know the truth, but the audience not being able to tell if the procedure actually worked.

OldBoy was a critical and commercial success when it came out back in 2003, grossing $15 million against a $3 million budget, and many American newspapers and critics hailing it as the greatest Korean movie ever made. So, naturally, with Hollywood being the soulless money machine that it is, an American remake was inevitable. And, wouldn’t you know it, in 2013, one such remake came out. Directed by Spike lee, and starring Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Olsen, the American version was a failure in every respect, making a mere $4.9 million against a $30 million budget, and critics slamming it as a pale, shallow imitation of the original. But was it? Well, let’s compare the two films, and find out.

First off: the acting. Both the Korean and American casts do superb jobs. They convey the rage, sorrow, confusion and anguish that these characters are enduring beautifully. I honestly don’t think there’s a bad actor in either film. But, in the end, the acting in the Korean original does stand slightly above that in the American remake, and for one major reason; the portrayal of the main antagonist. In the Korean version, the villain is played by Yoo Ji-tae, who’s performance can best be described as suave, yet deadly. He always seems calm and in control, constantly talking with a smug little smile on his face. He really seems like he’s ten steps ahead of you, because, guess what? He is ten steps ahead of you. He never loses his cool, or flies into a stereotypical villainous rage, except for one time in an internet cafe, but, even then, it’s brief, and he quickly regains his composure. All in all, Yoo’s smugness and icy exterior make him a more formidable opponent, because he does seem like a guy who’s got his shit together, and won’t slip up and let you win. That’s the kind of guy who’s got enough control and foresight to plan something this elaborate and devious. That’s a worthy opponent. The villain in the American version, by contrast, is emotionally unstable, whiney, and kind of cartoonish. He’s portrayed by South African actor Sharlto Copley, who screams, cries, and twitches a lot. Also, he does a really bad British accent, which just gets annoying after a while. His version of the character does seem like the type of guy who’d lose his shit and give you the chance to win, because he kind of does that in the movie. He doesn’t seem like he’d have the foresight to plan something as elaborate and devious as what’s portrayed in the film. He doesn’t seem like a worthy opponent. And that’s the main reason why the acting in the original OldBoy is superior to the acting in the remake, the villain is played in a more subtle and nuanced manner.

But acting is just one part of a film? What about the directing? Well, both versions of OldBoy were helmed by established directors with distinct visions and artistic styles. 2003’s OldBoy was directed by Park Chan-Wook, a man famous for making ultra-violent, morbid revenge films, usually on small budgets. His movies have immaculately framed shots, dark color pallets, and elements of black comedy mixed in with all the bloodshed. 2013’s OldBoy, by contrast, was directed by Spike Lee, a man most famous for making movies about race relations, and issues within the Black community. His movies tend to have exaggerated color pallets, over-the-top acting and dialogue, lots of slanted shots, and perfectly centered extreme close ups. I was honestly quite shocked when I heard that he was going to be directing the new OldBoy, because, none of his movies, before or since, have been as dark or violent as Park’s film. The closest he’s come to anything like it is his movie Inside Man, which is a crime thriller. But, even then, the whole conceit of Inside Man is that everything is a ruse. No one actually gets hurt or killed. So how was he supposed to remake a movie with some of the most gruesome fight and torture scenes ever? But, hey, just because someone hasn’t done something before doesn’t mean they can’t be good at it. Martin Scorsese hadn’t made a kid’s film before Hugo, and it turned out to be great. So, who was I to say that Spike Lee wasn’t up to the task of making an ultra-violent revenge film with themes of incest and child abuse? Someone who was absolutely right in that assumption, because the way he directed his film doesn’t hold a candle to the way Park directed his movie. 2013’s OldBoy feels very much like a Hollywood movie, with complicated, moving shots, elaborate sets, and highly choreographed fight sequences. It also tones down, or flat out removes, lots of the original’s odder moments. If you’ve ever seen 2003’s OldBoy, you know that there’s some weird shit in it, like people eating live octopus, people fantasizing about riding the train with man-sized insects, and people getting down on all fours and acting like dogs. You don’t see any of that in Spike Lee’s film. And while I can understand the desire to get rid of the weirder elements that wouldn’t play well to an American audience, shooting the movie the way he did, and removing much of the darker, more bizarre content, kind of undermines the story. OldBoy is supposed to be really dark, really gritty, and really weird. Park was able to achieve a greater feeling of realism by having whole scenes be shot in one take, and using lots of hand-held camera, and his inclusion of those odd scenes really helped set OldBoy apart from other, generic revenge flicks. And while I don’t usually like hand-held camera, because I think it makes the movie hard to watch, it served a purpose here, and I believe that, by removing it, and using more elaborate, hollywood type shots, Spike Lee removed much of what made OldBoy unique to begin with. So, all in all, the directing in the original is also superior.

But what truly makes or breaks a movie is the story; how its told, how it ends, etc. You can have a great idea, but execute it in a horrible manner, just as you can have a horrible idea, but convey it with enough style and wit to make it great. Both versions of OldBoy have the same basic plot; asshole gets locked up, seeks revenge, unwittingly commits incest with daughter, etc. But these films tell that story in two drastically different manners. And the manner in which 2003’s OldBoy tells that story is unquestionably superior. For starters, it presents the protagonist in a more positive, and, by extension, relatable, light. He’s still an asshole, but not as much of an asshole as in the 2013 version. The only real scene in which he behaves like a jerk is at the beginning, where he drunkenly acts out in a police station. But, even then, the dialogue in this scene makes it perfectly clear that the reason he’s acting out is that he’s trying to get home to celebrate his daughter’s birthday. So, already, we have a reason to care about him. Yes, he’s a drunken buffoon, but he’s a drunken buffoon who loves his daughter. This makes it easier for us to care about him when things go wrong, and give us a reason to want to see him prevail. In 2013’s OldBoy, by contrast, we aren’t given any reason to like, or care about the protagonist. The first fifteen minutes are just a series of scenes in which he acts like a dick to everyone. He insults his boss, hits on his client’s wife, refuses to go to his daughter’s birthday, and calls the mother of his child a “bitch.” By the time he gets locked up, we really hate him, and it’s kind of cathartic to watch him get his comeuppance. We don’t want to see him prevail, and are therefore uninterested in watching the rest of the plot unfold. Another poor storytelling choice that the American version made was to change the villain’s motivation. As I said before, the reason why the villain in the Korean version locked the protagonist up was the fact that, when they were younger, the protagonist saw him having incestuous sex with his sister, and told everyone about it. The sister then committed suicide, and the villain vowed revenge. This explanation makes sense, because the villain was in love with his sister, and was therefore heartbroken to lose her. We can understand this. We can understand someone being angry over losing a person they love. What we can’t understand is the explanation the villain gives us in the American version. There, rather than have the protagonist see the villain having sex with his sister, he sees her having sex with some random dude. The dude, as the villain explains, was their father, who was having sex with both of them, and who eventually decided to kill everyone in his family to avoid potential embarrassment. But this explanation doesn’t make sense. The protagonist didn’t know who the man was. Why, then, would anyone care if he told people about seeing some random girl having sex with some random guy? There’s nothing scandalous, or worth committing suicide over in that statement. It’s a lot less interesting to say “hey, I saw so and so having sex with a random dude,” than to say, “hey, so and so is banging his sister.” Plus, this explanation barely includes the villain, and fails to give him a valid reason for acting. He’s not the one the protagonist saw. He’s not the one in love with the girl who died. Why, then, does he hate the protagonist so much? This new explanation is so complicated, and so flimsy, that if you stop to think about it at all, it collapses in on itself. But by far the worst storytelling choice that the American remake made was to change the ending. In the Korean version, the protagonist gets a hypnotist to alter his memories. He embraces his daughter, who says that she loves him, though we’re not sure whether she means that as a father, or as a lover, and the protagonist smiles, only to have his expression change to one of sorrow, leading us to question whether or not the procedure worked. It’s powerful. It’s ambiguous. It’s the perfect way to end a twisted and warped story, where we’re constantly questioning what’s going on. What isn’t perfect is the ending in the American version. There, instead of consulting a hypnotist (because, lord knows, that’s way too silly for an American movie), the protagonist pays the same people who locked him up to do so again, so that he never has to tell his daughter the truth. The final shot is of him smiling contentedly. He’s not traumatized. He’s not insane. He’s genuinely happy. This ending has none of the ambiguity, or tragedy, of the Korean original, and is the final, and conclusive, piece of evidence proving that the story is told better in that film.

Thank you all for reading my first installment of OVR, or Original Versus Remake. I’ll have my reviews of recent releases, like Finding Dory, and The Neon Demon, up very soon.

I hope you all are having wonderful summers. If you like what you’ve read, please like this post, and follow my blog.

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