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Spike Lee's 'Oldboy' Doesn't Measure Up to Park Chan-wook's

Photo of Steve Greene By Steve Greene | Criticwire November 27, 2013 at 1:46PM

Spike Lee's latest film owes much to its 2003 predecessor, and that level of adaptation is an inescapable part of the reviews that hit the web yesterday.
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Oldboy

In the world of film reviews, embargoes are an inevitable part of the process. But few 2013 films have experienced the extended time between screenings and publish date as "Oldboy," the latest film from Spike Lee, opening in theaters today. After weeks of anticipating whether Lee's version could measure up to the decade-old version originally offered up by Park Chan-wook, reviews began flooding in yesterday afternoon. The prevailing wisdom? That this update leans heavily (perhaps too much so) on its predecessor. Think of the difference between "Oldboy" and "#oldboy." 

We've gathered some of the reviews that, rather than draw the simple comparison between the two films, dug a little deeper.

Matt Zoller Seitz, writing at RogerEbert.com, highlights the way that both films deal with a heightened and warped sense of reality.

Park: "It's worth pointing out here that Park's film is not an original story, but an adaptation of a Japanese comic book of the same name. Both versions find ways to visually suggest that you're reading a big-screen graphic novel with pages that come to life."

Lee: "The compositions in Lee's movie have such a painterly or 'illustrated' quality that they might as well have thick black lines marking off the edges of the frame. At no point does the film try to be 'realistic,' except when it comes to the strong, simple emotions that its characters feel...The whole thing flows as dreams flow, linking situations to other situations and images to other images in a seemingly free-associative manner."

Vulture's David Edelstein focused on how both films handle revenge, the thematic idea so deeply ingrained in the first.

Park: "The plot made no more sense in Korean, but the original Oldboy (loosely based on a Japanese manga) fit perfectly into Park’s cruel universe. In his 'Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance' and 'Lady Vengeance,' the obsession with an eye for an eye — or an eye, nose, and many teeth for an eye—inevitably leads to catastrophe. Revenge is never clean: There’s little correspondence between tit and tat. And though what happens is often unspeakably vile, Park views the bloodbaths with morbid detachment."

Lee: "The violence thereafter is gruesome — oodles of CG blood and brain matter — but out of scale. It’s shock for shock’s sake. It doesn’t track."

Justin Chang at Variety argues that the visual flair of the first is gone, with very little in its place.

Park: "Even “Oldboy” virgins caught off-guard by the closing twists may get the sense that they’re not following a story so much as a template, and a creaky one at that, absent the stylistic verve that made Park’s film, gratuitous and self-satisfied as it was, something more than the sum of its contrivances."

Lee: "Helmed by Lee on director-for-hire autopilot, this 'Oldboy' adds only a few negligible wrinkles to Park’s storyline while reproducing some of his most iconic images and sequences with uninspired fidelity...Lee’s directorial signature here could scarcely feel less pronounced, his attention less engaged. This time, it’s impersonal."

In his Hitfix review, Drew McWeeny explains that while the tightrope act plotting of Park's version is near impossible to recreate, Lee's assembled cast is an able one.

Park: "There is a fury to the film that is still somewhat terrifying when you see it, and Park delivers each new twist to the narrative like he's holding a knife that's already buried deep between two ribs, like he is enjoying each twist, knowing exactly what damage he's doing. While much of Spike Lee's best work is driven by a simmering anger, it's a very different kind, and his new version of 'Oldboy' feels like someone stranded by material rather than someone liberated by it."

Lee: "Lee's film is so relentless in the way it tries to barrage the audience with filth that by the time those final pieces are dropped into the puzzle, it's numbing rather than explosive. Josh Brolin is a good choice for Doucett, and he convincingly plays a self-destructive man whose free-fall is arrested momentarily by someone who wants to make sure he hurts as much as possible on his way down. Brolin's big enough that he seems believable as a sort of wrecking ball once he starts trying to figure out who is punishing him, and Elizabeth Olsen does everything she can to give nuance to Marie, a young woman who takes pity on Joe and who helps him with his search for answers."

Film.com's David Ehrlich counts "Oldboy" among Lee's least efforts, partly because of its insistence on framing its story almost solely as a remake.

Park: "While the film’s fiercely idiosyncratic nature has always made the idea of a remake feel somewhat quixotic, the explicitly and exclusively Korean elements of the original are so resistant to the idea of a note-for-note American remake that any Western version of the film would seemingly have no choice but to graft a new identity onto the bedrock of Park’s thrilling narrative."

Lee: "If the original film was a roller-coaster, Spike Lee’s remake is a malfunctioning carousel, jerkily orbiting around a fixed position – all the trappings of fun, but at the end of the day you’re just riding a plastic unicorn with a pole through its spine. While the story is essentially unchanged, the contributions of “I Am Legend” screenwriter Mark Protosevich offer the film its best chance at a unique sense of purpose...If this review feels overly preoccupied with the original “Oldboy”, it’s only because Lee’s film suicidally insists on being seen in that context."

Jesse Cataldo points out in his Slant review that the increased violence of Lee's update adds to a sensational atmosphere rather than one of increased grit.

Park: "Park Chan-wook's Oldboy was a story of men transformed into beasts, the monomaniacal pursuit of revenge stripping them of their already tenuous humanity. The Korean director gussied up a grim tale of imprisonment, incest, and live-octopus consumption using a squalid exploitation-flick aesthetic that provided his baroque narrative with a visual analogue."

Lee: "Tweaking the approach from one of scummy gothic noir to the world's most twisted superhero origin story may not have been the best way to begin...Oldboy seems to be responding to the sillier qualities of its source material by ramping up the ridiculousness, adding heightened violence to spice up the broth."

Overall, the first wave of reviews has landed the new film at a "C-" average. The Netflix version of the 2003 offering is now in Korean with subtitles (rather than the previous English dub). Why not make the comparison yourself?

This article is related to: Oldboy (2013), Oldboy, Spike Lee, Chan-wook Park


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