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Oldboy (2003)

The Suggestion Box

Chopper was my first lesson in the vast difference between myth and reality.

--Gordie Lachance, Stand By Me

For the longest time, I've felt like the only person on earth who hadn't seen Park Chan-wook's Oldboy. Released in 2003, the film is a bona fide credibility marker, in some pop-geek circles, for those claiming to have their pulse on the cinema of cool. Praised as both artsy and bad-ass, Park's relentless revenge tale even took home the Grand Prix at Cannes. With Spike Lee's own adaptation of Nobuaki Minegishi's comic looming, I decided it was finally time to rip the Band-Aid and give Park's movie a shot. 

And so it is that I find myself awkwardly defending remakes for the second time in just over a year (hopefully, I won't be proven so horribly wrong this time). Make no mistake: the past decade has been lousy with piss-poor, brand-name cash-ins (sorry, "bold re-imaginings"), but there've been a couple of good ones, too. These tend to be the movies that make the context and subject matter of the original story relevant to modern audiences (Dawn of the Dead, Last House on the Left), instead of going off the rails (A Nightmare on Elm Street) or pussying out on genre filmmaking's hallmarks (Prom Night). In short, the best remakes have a reason to exist.

From scene one, Oldboy begs for an update. While it's weird of me to criticize a filmmaker for trying to class up his or her production, Park's opening scene seems possessed by the spirit of Andy Warhol. For five minues, we watch a disheveled businessman crying in a drunk tank. This is our protagonist, Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi), and he's really obnoxious. After a friend (Dae-han Ji) bails him out, Dae-su is abruptly kidnapped and forced to live in a hotel room for fifteen years. It's a fine cell, to be sure, complete with a nice bed and television. But he can't leave, and is subjected to routine bouts of knock-out gas and the torture of being denied human interaction for a decade-and-a-half.

Dae-su escapes by patiently digging a tunnel out of his room, which he conceals behind the bed. If you wonder how plausible this is, due to his constantly being monitored, you have every right to be concerned. Oldboy is the very definition of "turn off your brain filmmaking"; anyone who mistakenly stays engaged will likely want to claw their brains out with the back end of a hammer. Speaking of which...

The outside world brings not only freedom, but the possibility of revenge. Dae-su has spent much of his incarceration getting fit and shadow-boxing phantoms of his captors, all in the name of one day settling the score. One of his first stops is a sushi bar, where he meets a lovely young chef named Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang). She is so instantly taken with this brooding, sloppy master of the thousand-yard stare, that she takes him back to his apartment after he devours an octopus whole and subsequently passes out. When he comes to, our hero tries to rape his host, almost immediately. She resists, of course, but assures him that she'll probably want it really badly after they get to know each other a little better.

I know, I know.

Fast-forward through a lot of Memento-style clue-gathering. Dae-su finally locates his captor's lair and gets in a nasty fight with about thirty henchman. This is the famous hallway fight that helped build Oldboy's reputation. Ineed, it's the best part of the film, both technically, emotionally, and viscerally. In a single shot, Park pans down a long hallway, as Dae-su fends off a mob of thugs with only his fists and a hammer (sorry, this call-back is a bit late). With its non-stop scrolling action, the scene plays like a live-action Street Fighter game, but with an equal number of clumsy moves as spot-on hits and kicks.

At some point, Dae-su meets the man who imprisoned him: a posh, young executive named Woo-jin Lee (Ji-tae Yu). He offers little in the way of clues as to why he'd set up the poor bastard, but through some more detective work, Dae-su grabs hold of a thread that will eventually (painfully, slowly) unravel the Big Secret. If you care at all about spoilers (for this film and, I assume, the remake), turn back now.

In flashback, we learn that Dae-su and Woo-jin went to high school together,* and that Dae-su spread a vicious rumor about Woo-jin having sex with a girl who turned out to be his sister (Lee Soo-ah). The gossip snowballed, and Soo-ah came to believe she was pregnant (um...?). Distraught, she threw herself off a bridge, leaving Woo-jin bitter, horny, and confused. By this point, Dae-su had transferred schools, with no idea of the damage he'd done.

Matters get more complicated during the climactic showdown in Woo-jin's penthouse. He reveals that not only did he have Dae-su gassed and imprisoned, he also employed a hypnotist to plant suggestions in his mind--as well as the mind of his long-lost daughter...Mi-do.

I heard that same record-scratch at this point in the story, and freely admit to pausing the film to look up "Oldboy 2003 movie" on Wikipedia. Skimming the synopsis, I learned that I was neither crazy nor the victim of poor subtitles. Woo-jin, the world's worst (best?) Batman villain, had used hypnosis--multiple times, on multiple people--to trick his high school enemy and his daughter into falling in sweaty, sexy love.

Horrified by the revelation, Dae-su begs Woo-jin not to have one of his thugs reveal the secret to Mi-do, who is being held captive in another prison-apartment. He offers to be Woo-jin's slave, even going so far as to lick the man's expensive shoes and cutting out his own tongue. Again, maybe it's a cultural thing, but where I come from, if you want to guarantee someone keeps a secret, you take away their ability to speak.

Whatever. It's a cool, squeamish homage to the "ear scene" from Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. Who cares if it makes a lick of sense, right?

Some other stuff happens and the movie ends. Park closes out his mess ambiguously, inviting the audience to interpret the meaning of the...

Sorry, I'm just so bored with this thing! Oldboy's acclaim baffles me. I understand its appeal to developmentally arrested, out-of-shape, and socially awkward nerds that want to believe they, too, might someday exact bloody, choreographed vengeance on anyone who's ever looked at them sideways for not showering regularly. But as a movie ostensibly written by and for adults, Park and co-writers Chun-hyeong Lim, Jo-yun Hwang, and Joon-hyung Lim sure sell themselves as sheltered, thirteen-year-old boys who've only ever read bad comics. No amount of surreal visuals (the CGI ants are, like, a metaphor, maaaan!) or graphic tooth extraction can cover up the fact that Dae-su is an unlikable character from the get-go, and his girlfriend/daughter's doe-eyed subservience borders on the offensive (of course, the film's utter lack of strong female characters can be pinned on the hypnotist).

So, yes, once again I say, "Bring on the remake!" There's no guarantee that Spike Lee will fare better with this wobbly material--but I'd be surprised if he does much worse.

*I'm not sure how the education system works in South Korea, but I'd wager that the age difference between students is significantly less than the fourteen years between the actors playing adult versions of them.

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