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Some Thoughts On Spike Lee's 'Oldboy' Reinterpretation + A Chat w/ The Filmmaker...

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act November 26, 2013 at 2:00PM

Some Thoughts On Spike Lee's 'Oldboy' Reinterpretation + A Chat w/ The Filmmaker
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Oldboy

It opens in theaters tomorrow, November 27th, with comparisons to Park Chan-wook's 2003 cult classic very likely to happen. And typically, when these kinds of inevitable juxtapositions occur (between an original and a remake/redo, or a book and its film adaptation, etc), the burden to show and prove lies with the *copy*, putting it at an almost immediate disadvantage. 

But having seen both films, I'll just say that Spike Lee's version is likely being made for the many North Americans who haven't seen Park Chan-wook's original, and for whom this new version will seem fresh and like a revelation - if only because, for them, there's no precedent for it.

And even though in the bubble within which I live, most people I know have seen, or are, at least, familiar with Park's film, I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I say that the majority of residents of these United States have probably never seen, heard of, nor know anything about Park's original.

I suppose you could also say that about most foreign films that are remade by Hollywood studios.

NOTE: SPOILERS AHEAD SO READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!!!!!! 

The most surprising thing that came to me while watching Spike's version, is just how similar it is to Park's film. I expected something radically different - for Spike to make it very much his own film. It was my initial understanding that Spike's take would be an adaptation of the original manga, and not a remake of Park's film. But that's not the case. It's very much a remake of Park's film, with some scenes framed and shot almost exactly in the same way Park did in his original. Even Spike himself said, during the press conference I attended 2 weeks ago, that his film is an homage to Park's. I wasn't expecting that, and it was a surprise to see, during the film's opening credits, a mention that the film was based on Park's - a fact Spike wasn't aware of when we mentioned it during the press junket.

"Shenanigans!" was the word he said repeatedly, shocked, but with a smile on his face, after we told him that there is a title card during the opening credits of his film that's essentially paying respects to Park's film. 

Apparently, he didn't know about that inclusion. But he likely was OK with it, given that he himself calls his film an homage, despite the fact that he wasn't aware of the mention.

Josh Brolin is a strong actor; he's captivating enough and believable in the role and carries the film throughout. And most of the film's key supporting cast give good performances as well. But Sharlto Copley's "villain" was distractingly cartoonish, I'm sorry to say, which didn't necessarily ruin the film for me, but given that he's the lead antagonist, and therefore is deeply woven into the film's narrative, which translates to heavy screen time, I'd say that he didn't help it either. I can only wonder about Sharlto's choices, and thus Spike's choices here for the character.

Thankfully, the film has more going for it than just Copley's Hunger Games-like caricature. 

It's maybe Spike Lee's most physically violent film ever. Even I cringed during a scene in which chunks of skin on Samuel L. Jackson's neck are sliced off with a knife by Brolin's Joe Ducett. There's more than enough blood and gore to satisfy those who appreciate those elements in their cinema. 

And for those who've seen the original, the twist ending is intact, so you can relax now. I know that was a concern for a lot of you - that the Hollywood version would be sanitized and absent of the more disturbing, controversial elements of Park's film.

But overall, I'd say that those who haven't seen the original (the people I believe this remake was made for) will find this one entertaining enough, and will probably be shocked by the ending, which will keep them talking for some time after they exit the theater. 

Those who have seen the original will probably find themselves comparing the two films, scene-by-scene, shot-by-shot, which will likely do more to ruin your experience than not. Just keep Park's film sectioned off at the back of your mind, if you can, and consider Spike's version as a standalone film - even though his is an homage to the other.

Ultimately, as I thought about the film after seeing it, I reached this final conclusion: this was an unnecessary redo, especially if the plan all along was to essentially make the exact same film, but in English, with (mostly) American actors. It's not necessarily Spike's problem. He was a director for hire here. He didn't chase the project, and it was made under the auspices of a film studio, meaning, he probably was allowed to play within a limited scope. So, considering that, I'd say that I was disappointed - but not because it isn't a well-put together film, despite some distractions; but because it's too much like the original, and just feels needless. I really hoped for a "Spike Lee joint." I was really looking forward to seeing how Spike would handle the material - the original manga, not a remake of Park's film.

I wouldn't call it his best work, but it's unlike any Spike Lee film that you've seen. In fact, except for the inclusion of one key Spike-ism (I'm sure you can guess which one I'm talking about), if I went into the screening of this remake, unaware that it was directed by Spike Lee, I wouldn't have guessed that it was a Spike Lee joint. 

Brolin previously shared that he prefers Spike's 3-hour cut over the one that will be in theaters starting tomorrow. I can't imagine what a 3-hour version of this would look, sound and feel like. This 2-hour version is long enough. In fact, I'd say that it could've been even shorter, by about 20 minutes, and would've been stronger.

In the press junket that followed a day after the press screening, I got to ask Spike a few questions about his Oldboy remake - although he prefers to say that his version is a "reinterpretation" and not a remake.

It was a very brief 12-minute round-table chat, not a one-on-one conversation, meaning I wasn't the only member of the press in the room, seated at the table with Spike. There were at least 6 of us in total. So with that many people, each with their own individual questions, and just 12 minutes with the filmmaker, we were all limited to how many questions we could ask, which explains why this interview piece is rather brief and light.

But without further ado, here's a summary of some of Spike's more interesting revelations regarding the project, made during the round-table chat:

On whether he chased the project or if it just fell into his lap.

SPIKE - I did not chase it. It was sent to me by my agent.

On whether he'd already seen the original before he signed up for the redo, and his reactions to it.

SPIKE - I'd seen the original before then. My emotions were all over the place. I thought it was so inventive. So stylish. But that was 10 years ago. At the time, I never thought to myself, 'I want to remake THAT film.' It didn't cross my mind... until my agent sent me the script, 10 years later.

On whether he'd read the source manga.

SPIKE - Yes, I'd read the Manga.

On his approach to the material, and the many similarities between his and Park Chan-wook's, given that expectations by some of us were that he would use the manga as his source material, and not Park's film.

SPIKE - First, we said that we were not doing a remake. We were doing an interpretation. Before Josh [Brolin] agreed to do the film, he met with Park Chan-wook, and wanted his blessing. And Park said, make your own film, don't remake ours. And that was my thinking from the beginning anyway. So Josh and I along with the screenwriter Mark [Protosevich], we tried to give our own interpretation of a great film, respecting the original source - the manga and the Korean film. There are several homages to Park's film, but we wanted to make our own film. If it had been radically different, we wouldn't have been respectful to the source. You have to come in humble. We didn't want to come in thinking, we're going to dismantle the original and make it better.

On whether this is his most unabashedly violent film, given how graphic it is.

SPIKE - Well there's different types of violence. Not all violence is physical, so... I don't know if I'd say that.

On shooting in New Orleans and having it be recognizable as a character in the film.

SPIKE - There's no one outside New Orleans, in my opinion, who will know that the film was shot in New Orleans. The only reason why we shot there is because it has the biggest tax rebate. We couldn't afford to shoot in New York. It wasn't even a consideration.

On whether he'd be interested in another filmmaker remaking or reinterpreting or reimagining one of his films, and whether he's ever been approached in that regard.

SPIKE - Nope and nope.

That's it! Like I said, brief and light. Such is the way these junkets go at times.

Spike Lee's much-anticipated Oldboy adaptation stars Josh Brolin, along with Sharlto CopleyElizabeth OlsenSamuel L. Jackson, and more, with FilmDistrict releasing it wide, starting tomorrow, November 272013.

Spike Lee directs from a script penned by Mark Protosevich, who is also co-producing, along with Roy LeeDoug Davison and Nathan Kahane of Good Universe.

This article is related to: Spike Lee


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