A lil review I wrote for the Oxford Student on Spike Lee's adaptation of Old Boy.
Side note: Whilst I respect so much of Lee's work (Do the Right Thing, School Daze etc.) I agree with bell hooks in 'Outlaw Culture' that he can be super problematic at times. I find it especially disappointing that whilst he is so quick to call others out he fails to cast a similarly rigorous eye on his own material. Of course Tarantino has created some seriously questionable material but we need to be equally critical when it comes to film makers in our own communities too.
Okies rant over, here is the review:
Remakes of cult movies, pressed tight to film geeks’ chests for ten long years, make easy targets for critics’ fodder. And no one needs to read heavily embellished think pieces on why Americans are too stupid to read subtitles. But, I dunno, the vibe of Spike Lee’s remake of Park Chan-Wook’s contemporary classic Oldboy (2003) has been kinda off from the get go. Following Lee’s leaked casting list calling for “[ASIAN WOMAN] Female, Early to mid 20s, A mysterious Exotic beauty. MARTIAL ARTS EXPERIENCE A PLUS,” the director tweeted an adamant promise for a “diverse” Oldboy. (Diverse! Such an indulgently meaningless phrase!) Yet, as the movie progresses, we find Chan-Wook’s bodyguard character, Mr Han, replaced with the Orientalist trope of a mute Asian succubus, provocatively dressed for the white male gaze. At this point one can’t help but question the goody-baddy binary between Lee and Tarantino, a boring bedtime story that’s been playing out since the 90’s.
“Trope” feels like a pretty key word to describe Lee’s Oldboy actually, as the whole thing is more lip synch than tongue slice. I think of Josh Brolin (who has taken on Choi Min-Sik’s leading role) alone in his cell, television flickering with interchangeable catastrophes, 9/11, New Orleans (an oddly apolitical tone from Lee I might add). This Oldboy is bright and boring and screen violence equates to glazed eyes and clock watching. Even Samuel L Jackson does a surprisingly dull job at the whole being horrifically executed thing. And then there’s Brolin himself, who evokes the empathy levels of one of those Nice Guys from Ok! Cupid memes, repulsive at best, uninterested shrug for the rest. It’s hard to care for the horrors that await him, and, if empathy is everything, this film is nothing.
And whilst the sign of a good remake should not be measured by the characteristics of its predecessor it’s hard not to feel disappointed when Oldboy 1.0’s most defining scenes (no octopus scene? Well that sucks) wind up being replaced with an incoherent plot and that boy from the Goonies in a bad wig. But cultural snobbery of “I-saw-the-film-before-the-remake, read-the-graphic-novel-before-the-film” aside the real let down of the movie is that its brittle heart of tragedy, an ugly thread that linked Park Chan-Wook’s original to the giants of Greek tragedy, has been replaced with a hollowness that permeates its 120 minutes.