One day at golf practice Jeremy insisted that I should watch a movie called “Oldboy.” When I asked him to tell me anything about it, he wouldn’t. I had no idea why he was being so weird about it until I decided to watch it. In 120 minutes, I was confused enthralled, aroused, disgusted, then briefly optimistic, then more disgusted than I ever thought a movie could make me feel. I actually felt dirty after watching the movie. The movie crossed lines that I assumed were actually impossible to cross. The second I heard about this research paper, there wasn’t a doubt in my mine that I wanted to take it as an opportunity to dissect what made Chan-Wook Parks’s “Oldboy” so effective at both eliciting a visceral reaction while still raising unthinkable moral dilemmas, while still being an artistically interesting film. At first, I looked at the film through the lenses of character analysis and the artistic direction of the movie. After finding out about the existence of Spike Lee’s American remake of the movie staring Josh Brolin, I realized that I would be able to see what made Park’s version so effective by looking at what made Lee’s remake ineffective. I must say that I was expecting Lee’s remake to be absolutely terrible but it was significantly more coherent and well made that I thought. Ultimately I think that the differences that set the two apart lie in the differences between the opening, the two main characters, the overall plot, and the ending.
Park’s “Oldboy” opens simply. It starts with Dae-su drunk in a police station on his daughter’s girlfriends, being slightly belligerent in a seemingly harmless but slightly comical way. His friend comes to bail him out and they go to a public phone booth. After Dae-su finishes talking to his daughter and hands the phone to his friend to say something, the camera begins to rotate around the phone booth centered on the friend talking while Dae-su fades into the background. After the camera rotates halfway around the phone booth, Dae-su is gone. In Lee’s Oldboy, it opens with James Brolin pouring alcohol in a soda cup before he goes to work. Then he is belligerent in his office. He is a distant father. He is an asshole to his wife. Then he drinks more. Then at a dinner things start to go well at a dinner with a client. Then he is revealed to be a pervert as soon as his client leaves to go to the bathroom and starts hitting on his wife. Then he drinks more. Then he bangs on the door of his friend’s pub begging for alcohol. Then he spends a while hassling a street merchant (who happens to be selling toys in an alley at 4 in the morning) for a present for his daughter. Then some strange lady comes with an umbrella and hypnotizes him. In both versions, the protagonist is drunk on his infant daughter’s birthday; he has a present for her, and then disappears. Lee’s version goes on for 10 minutes while Park’s goes on for less than 3. Lee uses this opening to establish Josh Brolin’s character’s personality. He is shown as a scummy alcoholic who doesn’t care about his family. There are several scenes in the first 10 minutes alone that display each one of those traits. Dae-su on the other hand is a blank slate. We do not know if he is an alcoholic or just happens to be drunk, he appears to love his family but the only evidence is Dae-su drunkenly showing the police officers a picture and talking to her on the phone. I think that this relatively small difference in the beginning sets up a huge precedent for the rest of the movie. This setup gives Josh Brolin’s character, Joe, a character goal. Even though there is no force causing him to renounce his alcoholism or become a better husband and father, it creates an expectation that these are problems that will continually show up throughout the film. Dae-su however has nothing like this. When he awakens in the cell, we as the viewer have no idea why he is there nor do we know anything about him other than he has a family. As soon as Joe wakes up, he starts trying to figure out who put him in there. We saw that Joe wronged a lot of people in the opening so we can get an idea that he probably deserves it. When doing the same thing, Dae-su says, “I had thought I that lived a normal life, but there was too much wrongdoing.” We have no idea whether or not he is logging offenses that everyone is probably guilty or if he led a life similar to Joe. The uncertainty that this leaves the viewer with causes us to feel similarly to Dae-su, who has absolutely no idea why he was there.
We never find out what sort of person that Dae-su was before being imprisoned. Realistically it really does not matter which is where I think Lee got lost. Common practice filmmakers tend to create characters with coherent and believable backstories and clear motivations. In most Hollywood narratives, this makes sense because it is needed to progress the story because usually the main characters drive the action. In this movie, using this type of main character makes the movie clunky because the main character is not the one driving the story. This plot is written and executed entirely by the antagonist. This distinction is also rooted culturally. Josh Brolin embodies Western masculinity. He is strong, unafraid, patriarchal, attractive, stoic, and self-sacrificing. These same traits are the traits of the typical Hollywood protagonist. Dae-su is physically strong and ultimately self-sacrificing, but he is very different otherwise. In some ways he becomes very animalistic. The two undergo similar at a surface level but ultimately very different transformations while imprisoned. Joe is a fat alcoholic who sees his daughter on the television and says I am going to clean up my act, hunt down the person who did this to me and be the father I should have been. He then dramatically quits drinking and then becomes very disciplined and works out non-stop until he gets out. When Dae-su first arrives, he is a fat person. He does not appear to think about his daughter but he slowly becomes more and more enraged, becoming almost feral, only motivated by revenge. This leads to a difference that the western protagonist’s main goal of revenge is watered down with other “more noble” goals of making things right with his daughter and becoming sober. Dae-su, who possesses many traits of Eastern masculinity, is solely focused on the ignoble goal of revenge. Eastern masculinity idealizes a balance of coolness and frenzy. We see the frenzy building up in Dae-su as he goes crazy in his cell, looking increasingly more feral as his hair and beard grow. Like Joe, he starts working out non-stop. Joe however works out in regimented sets. Dae-su just frantically shadowboxes and punches a wall manically. At the same time though, displays the masculine coolness during the montage of his last six years in containment. There is usually a brief reprise of the other side when Dae-su is displaying one. For instance, when Dae-su is going crazy in his cell, there is a shot of him sitting still, creepily smiling at the camera. When he is acting calmly talking about the last six years of his imprisonment, Dae-su is shown frantically shadowboxing. Joe is more straightforward. He gets in the cell. He is an alcoholic who starts going crazy. Then he sees his daughter and is motivated to become disciplined and from there he just works out and seems surprisingly sane. This difference in character makes some of the following scenes not make as much sense. When the two are released from imprisonment, they get into a fight with a group of people. Dae-su encounters a group of punks and then gets into a fight. There is no strong rhyme or reason behind why he went up to the group, but that’s okay because the nature of his character is unclear. Joe tries to follow the lady with the umbrella who hypnotized him and she leads him to a pickup game of football where one of the players hits him to try and get him to leave her alone. Joe retaliates by seemingly murdering the entire team of players. This does not exactly seem to be inline with his new personal developments. The fight itself is well shot and well choreographed but leaves the question why did he engage with them? The difference between the two characters and culture is also very apparent during the fight scenes. When Joe is fighting, he becomes superhuman. He easily demolishes wave after wave of enemies with little difficulty. He has multiple boards broken over his back and a knife stuck in him, but he does not look or act like he feels it. Dae-su is much more human when he fights. While he is a gifted fighter from his years of practice, he slows down as he gets tired and he moves as if he is wounded when he gets hit. This reminds me a lot of the Indonesian action film “The Raid: Redemption.” Different laws surrounding stunt coordinators in Asia allow for more realistic fight sequences because the actors can basically beat each other up. This more realistic style works in “Oldboy” because Dae-su is not some professional fighter, nor is he young. The rabid qualities of his fighting fit his frantic nature.
At the climactic end when the antagonist threatens to tell the daughter the truth, the protagonist breaks down in front of the antagonist. When Dae-su does this, he gets on his hands and knees and starts acting like an animal. He licks Woo-jin’s shoes and completely dehumanizes himself, offering to do anything to prevent Woo-jin from telling Mi-do. When Joe breaks down, it seems very awkward and out of character. He goes from one moment holding the antagonist against a wall, beating him to the next kneeling in front of him begging for death. This reversal of power once the protagonist realizes that the antagonist is essential to the movie, but there is no convincing way to get a satisfactory reaction from a character like Joe without it seeming contrived. What I mean by this is that this is a movie where the bad guy wins. In order for the bad guy to completely win, the protagonist has to supplicate himself to the antagonist after the protagonist fulfills the antagonist’s demands and thinks that he won. If Joe finds out that he slept with his daughter and then gets angry and kills Adrian, it is still technically the desired outcome but the self-imposed role reversal was supposed to force the protagonist to feel the same shame about love that the antagonist had to endure. Then the antagonist poetically kills himself, leaving the protagonist to deal with the problem by himself. It puts the protagonist in a unique circumstance because he thought that all of those actions were of his own volition, so the attachment between him and his daughter is genuine in his mind. The big reveal is so powerful because nothing about the relationship itself changes, just his perception of it. The reaction of both the protagonists are very different. Dae-su decides to see a hypnotist to make him forget that Mi-do is his daughter and makes the decision to continue the relationship were Joe gives the money to his daughter to go run off with her ex-boyfriends and pays to lock himself back in the room for the rest of his life.
Despite the fact that the American version was 20 minutes shorter, there were many more characters to convolute the plot. I think this is another tendency of Hollywood films. The Korean version has a complicated plot, but the plot is centered around three people, one of whom is not present until the end. The additional characters in the American version impact the film in a negative way. His deceased wife and friend Chucky come up in Joe’s boarding school flashbacks where he harassed Adrian’s sister. I do not think their presence in his memories add anything to the plot. It is not an interesting dynamic between them, it never comes up again, and it just serves to dilute the interaction between Joe and Amanda. Similarly the presence of his daughter’s ex-boyfriend, who stiches Joe up after an earlier fight, significantly weakens the ending. Mi-do is alone in the world because she was raised just to one day fall in love with Dae-su. Marie, Joe’s daughter, has a backstory and a life outside Joe and is therefore not as much of a burden on Joe because when he leaves she has somewhere to go. Dae-su does not have that option because he knows if he leaves Mi-do she would be all alone in the world, forcing him to live with his actions. Joe took the easy way out. He ran away from his problem because he knew Marie had a safe future. In this way I think that the American ending is much weaker. Chucky, Joe’s longtime friend who appeared in the opening, grounded the plot in a way that the Korean version was not. In the Korean version, they are always moving. I think that the Korean approach makes more sense because Dae-su is never grounded. He is always at the mercy of Woo-jin. Even though Adrian has access to Chucky’s bar, the fact that Joe keeps going back gives him more perceived control over his life than what Dae-su has. The difference in the story of the Woo-jin and his sister and the story of Adrian and his family creates a difference too. While the story of Woo-jin and his sister is less graphic and twisted, it keeps the relationship more direct between Woo-jin and Dae-su. I understand that Lee wanted to try and create a more parallel story (exposing the Adrian’s sister for having sex with her father instead of Dae-su exposing Woo-jin for having sex with his sister), but I think adding the extra character of the father figure takes the focus away from the implications of what Joe did and puts the focus on the father killing his family and then himself. Woo-jin was able to perfectly plan out all of both Dae-su and Mi-do’s actions because he only had to account for two people. Seeing him explain his master plan was more impressive than seeing Adrian because Adrian could not control all of the external factors as successfully. The American version did not include the almost Saw-like moment where Woo-jin made Dae-su either cut out his own tongue or have Mi-do find out about their true relationship. Another layer of Park’s “Oldboy” was the innocence behind Mi-do that Dae-su knew he was responsible for protecting. She had never been with another man, which made the sex scene especially graphic. Marie on the other hand was a former drug addict who already clearly had experience with men and a bad upbringing so in some ways, what Joe did to her was not as bad. Additionally Woo-jin’s deal was if Dae-su figured out who he was and why he wanted revenge, he would kill himself and if Dae-su failed he would kill Mi-do. Adrian’s deal with Joe was similar but also involved $20,000,000 and a note proving him innocent. Adrian’s deal is also reasonable, the added reward was just another way that made Lee’s version more convoluted. Ultimately all of the things Lee added to try and adapt the story to fit a more typical Hollywood mold ended up harming the film because he made it excessively convoluted with information and people that did not contribute to the plot. Park’s “Oldboy” is so great because it follows a man with no backstory trying to figure out what is happening to him, keeping the audience just as confused as he is. In some ways the ending reminds me of the ending of “Y Tu Mama Tambien” because the ending gives many events that occurred earlier in the film a different meaning than what one would see watching the film for the first time. The original “Oldboy” is so effective because of the lack of characters to take the attention away from the fact that Dae-su never is in the driver’s seat. He is always in the position of trying to figure out what he needs to be doing and is operating on basically no information. The only break he gets is his time with Mi-do, which creates more of a dependency between the two. This dependency makes the end more powerful because Mi-do is the only person Dae-su has spent time with in 15 years whereas Joe interacted with several people, creating less of a dependence on Marie. This difference shows at the end when Joe makes the decision to cut ties with Marie and Dae-su makes the decision to stay with Mi-do.
From a stylistic perspective, I do not think that one is clearly better than the other surprisingly. They both have their strengths and weaknesses. Park’s “Oldboy” is features similar cinematography to other Korean films. There are many wide shots, most notably the famous fighting scene in the corridor. There are also many panning shots where Dae-su will look at something, then the camera pans where he is looking and then he appears where he was looking. An example of this is when he looks down below a bridge at the punks that he fights. Lee’s “Oldboy” is entirely composed of close-up shots and subjective shots. He tries to copy some of the stylistic choices that Park makes, but does not fully commit. For example in the main fight sequence, he uses a wide shot similar to Park’s, but it is not as wide and the shot is much shorter. Lee uses almost no shots in the entire film that establish location. I think this does create a cool effect. It makes it feel like the action never pauses because we never get comfortable in a location. To establish location he cuts to a couple different close-ups but never shows the entire thing. For example to show the motel, he cuts to a close-up of the motel sign and then cuts to a random close-up of the building then cuts to inside the room. Even in the 15 minutes spent focusing on Joe’s imprisonment, we never get a shot to show the entire room to see how claustrophobic it is. Lee added an interesting bit in that part where Joe befriends a rat. For a few moments, he seems happy to have company but then he wakes up one morning and finds that the rat is gone. Moments later the food slot opens and the rat and her babies show up cooked on a platter. While that scene did not add to the plot, I thought it added some nice flavor to show how alone Joe was and how controlled his existence was. There were several interesting editing sequences that I thought were very well done. For every meal during his imprisonment, the food would slide under the door. There was a close-up of the plate from above; followed quick cuts to his the next meals. This showed the passage of time and the monotony of his days. The sequence was very clean and the presentation of the dishes was interesting to look at. Similarly when he tries to find the dumplings that he ate for 20 years, there was a similar sequence showing all of the different dumplings he tried. The presentations of the different restaurants were very colorful and clean. Similarly this showed passage of time in a concise and interesting way. Both directors opted for different approaches to the flashbacks. Park opted for a nostalgic, washed-out filter over the scene to give a sentimental feeling. Lee placed the characters in the background of the flashback as if they were in the memory. I thought that the writing of the sequence was melodramatic.
Overall I think the Spike Lee’s “Oldboy” was much better than I expected it to be, but ultimately failed as a movie because every detail of the movie that Lee changed to fit Hollywood standards detracted from the impact of the movie. The change of the protagonist from being masculine in an Eastern sense to a Western sense caused his actions to be unconvincing and contrived. The goal-oriented nature of Joe took power away from Adrian in a way the Woo-jin maintained over Dae-su. The addition of more characters watered down the relationship between the three key characters. The insistence on a clean ending softened the blow of the entire movie because it allowed to protagonist to win in some way in a story in which the antagonist is supposed to completely win. These are many of the same traits that Park’s “Oldboy” shares with the tradition of art cinema. In these ways I believe that Park’s “Oldboy” is a continuation of the art cinema tradition. Some films cannot be successfully adapted by Hollywood because of cultural differences that are key to fully expressing the narrative.
Choi, Jinhee. The South Korean film renaissance: local hitmakers, global provocateurs.
Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2010.
Clark, Ashley. “Spike Lee: Oldboy, new man?” British Film Institute. April 15,
2014. Accessed January 23, 2017. http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-
Darius, Julian. “Revenge, Hypnotism, and Oedipus in Oldboy (2003).” Sequart
Organization. November 28, 2013. Accessed January 23, 2017. http://sequart.org/magazine/31552/revenge-hypnotism-and-oedipus-in-oldboy-2003-part-2/.
Darius, Julian. “Revenge, Hypnotism, and Oedipus in Oldboy (2003), Part 2.” Sequart
Organization. November 30, 2013. Accessed January 23, 2017. http://sequart.org/magazine/31552/revenge-hypnotism-and-oedipus-in-oldboy-2003-part-2/.
Jung, Sun. “Oldboy, Postmodern Masculinity, and Western Fandom on Film Review
Websites: Time between Dog and Wolf.” In Korean Masculinities and
Transcultural Consumption: Yonsama, Rain, Oldboy, K-Pop Idols, 119-62. Hong Kong University Press, 2011. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1xcrmm.8.
Kim, Kyung Hyun. The remasculinization of Korean cinema. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.
Kim, Kyung Hyun. ““Tell the Kitchen That There’s Too Much Buchu in the Dumpling”:
Reading Park Chan-wook’s “Unknowable” Oldboy.” In Horror to the Extreme: Changing Boundaries in Asian Cinema, edited by Choi Jinhee and Wada-Marciano Mitsuyo, 179-98. Hong Kong University Press, 2009. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1xwdz5.14.
Kim, Yŏng-jin, and Colin A. Mouat. Park Chan-wook. Seoul: Seoul Selection, 2007.
Paquet, Darcy. New Korean cinema breaking the waves. London: Wallflower, 2009.
Shin, Chi-Yun, and Julian Stringer. New Korean cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004.