Benjamin Lewis compares the original Oldboy to its Hollywood adaptation and argues that it should have never left South Korea.
After finally having summoned the courage to watch the notorious Oldboy, a South Korean cult film directed by Park Chan-wook, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2004 and was praised by Quentin Tarantino, I was left asking myself what on earth I had just watched.
Oldboy tells the story of a man imprisoned for 15 years who is suddenly released with no explanation. He is given a short period of time to discover who is responsible for his imprisonment before his daughter dies. Featuring one of the most surreal plots you will encounter, the American remake last year had a lot to live up to and unfortunately it failed…massively.
The casting in the South Korean original is perfect, with Min-sik Choi playing protagonist Oh Dae-Su. His diminutive form, drunk joviality and man-child quality means that his eventual transformation is all the more powerful.
This contrasts immensely with Josh Brolin as Joe Doucett in the American version. The intrinsic problem with Brolin is that he is too much of a Hollywood badass to play the vulnerable, weak Doucett.
Choi’s realistic, though at times eccentric, performance depicting his despair is uncomfortably believable whilst Brolin gave the impression that if he really wanted to escape all he’d have to do was run into his cell door.
Choi’s physical transformation is an embodiment of his determination to get revenge and has a more authentic air than that of his American counterpart. Brolin is already a big guy and it merely feels that he has skipped the gym for a few weeks before his incarceration.
This casting problem extends to Sharlto Copley as Doucett’s nemesis. Copley is a great actor, especially in District 9, but his English accent in this film is just ridiculous and in successfully hiding any trace of his South African roots becomes a caricature of the stereotypical British accent. Thus, it’s very difficult to take his evil and disturbed character Adrian Doyle Pryce seriously.
His laughable character results in unfortunate undermining of the hideously dark, surreal tone and subject matter of the film. Substance is exchanged for an abundance of style, which feels like a shallow rip-off.
In contrast, the South Korean original Woo-jin Lee (performed by Jie-tae Yu) actually adds to the surrealistic tone of the film. He’s a chilling character, with the patience of a saint whose commitment to vengeance culminates in a mind-boggling showdown which contributes to the tension running throughout the film.
The Hollywood remake even lacks in effective action sequences. The American version manages to make the most memorable action scenes robotic and desensitizes the viewer to the on screen action. Brolin dispenses with all the incompetent cronies too easily and it seems like a mere morning workout for him.
Furthermore, Oh Dae-Su’s torturing of the prison boss is genuinely creepy and, after 15 years of imprisonment, appears to have no boundaries. The removal of teeth with pliers, as a slow trickle of blood emerges forth from the unlucky man’s mouth is just nasty.
Yet, the American version is let down somewhat by Samuel L Jackson playing the prison boss as you just can’t believe that Brolin would ever try messing with him or that he would succeed. I was waiting for Jackson to start reciting scripture to Brolin and a cameo appearance of John Travolta.
Finally, there is a ‘softening’ of content in the American version which is not unique to this film. In Battle Royale, it’s difficult to imagine the general American public accepting what they see. They needed a remake, cue the The Hunger Games – to make it palatable to an American audience, given the tragedy of school killings.
Yet, it seems nonsensical that the American version would omit these comparable scenes which contributed to the original Oldboy’s notoriety. Perhaps if they had included these, Hollywood would have threatened to branch into zanier world cinema territory.
This ‘softening’ is rendered oxymoronic as the twist in the American ending is more disturbing than the original, probably a directorial choice by Spike Lee. The brilliant cliffhanger of the Korean version, which allows the viewer to decide what happens to Oh Dae-Su, is lost in the closing sequence of the American remake.
The key problem is that the remake feels a bit too safe, like it’s been wrapped up in cotton wool. Unlike the Korean version, whose direction accentuates the film, the American version directly opposes the message of human vulnerability which is at the heart of the film.
It’s fair to say that in the case of Oldboy, the original is vastly superior to that of the Hollywood remake. With the catastrophic casting, desensitizing violence and the change in overall mood, it is an example of a film that should have been left as an original.