By ignoring cultural differences and failing to learn from remakes like The Departed, Spike Lee’s Oldboy is an attempt to fit a square peg in a round hole.
WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS
Spike Lee’s American remake of Chan-wook Park’s weird and bloody South Korean opus Oldboy had a lot to live up to. The original is considered a modern classic and a landmark development in the thriller genre – people were suitably iffy about the prospect of a director as uneven and famously self-indulgent as Spike Lee attempting to tackle an American remake.
Well, fear not ladies and gentlemen, because Spike Lee’s remake of Oldboy is not, in fact, an American remake. It’s a thin and tepid shot-for-shot homage that just happens to star white people. Honestly, the actors could all be French-speaking Atlanteans living deep in the Earth’s core and the film would have turned out pretty much the same.
A big problem the fan community had with Spike Lee’s Oldboy was the very fact that such a classic piece of cinema was being reappropriated for an American audience at all. Cries of patronisation, xenophobia and unoriginality rang loud from fan forums and social media and, yes, there was a danger that all these things could prove to be true but, personally, I was still pretty optimistic.
I’ve had some very positive experiences with remakes; Michael Haneke’s shot-for-shot remake of Funny Games actually managed to add a sort of sexy, David Niven panache to its chief antagonist and The Departed was a fantastic, tight(ish) retelling of the sprawling and complicated Infernal Affairs trilogy. But what made these remakes great was their acknowledgement of the cultural differences between ‘American’ and ‘foreign’ cinematic codes.
Great remakes acknowledge cultural differences between American and foreign cinematic codes. Lee’s Oldboy doesn’t
In order to make Funny Games more palatable for an American audience, Michael Haneke delved into the cinematic history of American villains and turned Paul into a moustache-twirling silent film era sadist, an archetype we Westerners know and love and could cling to as a reference point. The Departed, similarly, took Infernal Affairs’s fantastic plot but divested it of its Hong Kong sheen and fluidity, turning it into something more reminiscent of the out-of-control helter-skelter of a Raymond Chandler novel. These are examples, not only of a shrewd foreknowledge of cultural tropes, but also of a tremendous respect for the original source material, something that Spike Lee’s copy-and-paste approach completely lacks.
Lee’s use of Louisiana for the Oldboy remake’s setting is completely arbitrary. Louisiana is an American state with a storied contemporary narrative that’s pretty hard to ignore and is rarely ever used as the setting of a piece of fiction without at least some lip service given to its unique culture and history. Hell, even Werner Herzog’s deeply confusing Nicolas Cage vehicle, Bad Lieutenant, managed to tap into its New Orleans setting’s post-Katrina desolation. Spike Lee’s Oldboy does no such thing.
This total disregard for setting can be seen in the tedious replication of the ‘dumplings’ plot point. In the original film, protagonist Oh Dae-su goes on a hunt for the restaurant that supplies the food to the building he was incarcerated in for 15 years by tasting dumplings from all the restaurants in the area. This makes sense in a South Korean film; dumplings are an inexpensive and common snack over there. Less so in post-Hurricane Katrina Louisiana.
Lee’s Oldboy just re-uses the plot with no alterations made whatsoever. As already pointed out by film critic Bob Chipman, this is such a wasted opportunity for the film to dintinguish itself from its forebear as Louisiana’s culinary landscape is famously unique. How about having Josh Brolin trawling all over town trying gumbo or crawdad? Crawdad could have been its salvation; alas, no.
However, more egregious is the use of the hallway fight scene. Yes, I know, it’s iconic, but iconography is almost certainly the reason Lee retained those incongruous dumplings. South Korean crime cinema’s relationship to guns is a very different one from Hollywood’s, due to the tremendously strict gun control carried out over there. Consequently, the very presence of a gun in most South Korean cinema takes on a Chekhovian level of significance.
This manifests itself in Oldboy’s tense, single shot hallway fight scene in which protagonist Oh Dae Su brutally dispatches ten gang members with a claw hammer, all of whom are similarly armed. It’s a claustrophobic, desperate mess, indicative of the gang’s lack of perparedness, training or equipment and Oh Dae-su’s own terrifying capacity for violence. So how come, with America’s gun-saturated culture, the hitmen of a massive crime syndicate are coming at Josh Brolin’s character with broken bottles and metal pipes? Again, this is just another example of a jarringly incongruous motif being lazily recycled to evoke a sort of brand recognition.
Spike Lee cynically thought Oldboy could just be re-shot with white people and repackaged as a fresh reimagining
And the only concession and recognition of the socio-political environment the film has been transposed into is the ending; the big reveal. In the original, the antagonist turned out to be a grieving, vulnerable man whose incestuous relationship with his sister was discovered by a teenaged Oh Dae-su and spread around school, causing the sister to kill herself and his psyche to shatter. In the remake, however, Spike Lee has decided to do away with the uncomfortably sympathetically-rendered incestuous relationship for a more zeitgeisty, moral panicky, cookie cutter abusive father backstory, in which the antagonist’s sister is killed by the father after Josh Brolin’s character sees him abusing her.
Again, a pretty cynical attempt at tapping into a rote, American cultural terror for a cheap and grotesque villainous backstory. While all this this could be argued as ‘reverence’ for the source material, I call it lazy film-writing and, conversely, a pretty blithe disregard of the original film’s intentions. By attempting to fit a square peg in a round hole, you’re proving how reductive your view of the original piece of work is. If Spike Lee genuinely thought Oldboy could just be re-shot with white people and repackaged as a fresh reimagining, then he’s become just as cynical and artistically flabby as his detractors have been claiming for years.
Featured image: Universal
Inset images: Warner Bros; Universal; Show East