Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy had sat in our Netflix list for a few years, placed there thoughtfully by my partner even though she herself had no desire to ever come near to watching it. I can’t remember the motivation now, but several weeks ago, sometime after bedtime, I felt a little angry about the day’s events and in a mood to watch something cathartically nasty. Thus did I return to the living room to queue it up.
From a conversation with a film-buff friend a decade earlier, I already knew a sketch of the movie’s plot-setup, as well as the specifics of the (infamous, I imagine) octopus scene. I’d seen enough contemporary Korean cinema to expect a brutally hyper-violent Grand Guignol delight, so it surprised me to find myself watching a relatively subdued, even darkly comical work of noir cinema.
While it does express itself through violence, and some of that violence gets pretty hairy, it doesn’t cross any lines commonly set by today’s American superhero films or TV. Compared to the Daredevil TV series, which I watched at around the same time, and whose frequent, bloody brutality I found remarkably grim, Oldboy’s violence gets a pass on grounds of uncanny similarity, though perhaps a bit funnier. Choi Min-sik’s protagonist does engage in vast amounts of comic-book mayhem on his quest to discover the reason for his inexplicable 15-year limbo in a strange prison (and equally unexplained release from it), but adheres to a Marvel-style no-kill code, to the point of making sure that a mid-boss he subjected to horrible dental torture gets carted to the hospital by blood-type-comptable flunkies.
Which isn’t to say that Oldboy doesn’t effectively dabble in subjects far more disturbing than interpersonal violence, the most profound of which provides its plot twist — and of that I shall say no more here, even though the film rather telegraphs it from the outset. (And, indeed, even though the film’s more than ten years old, normally past the statute of limitations for requisite spoiler warnings — but I didn’t know where this foreign-to-me movie would go before I started watching it, so I assume that plenty of others reading this remain similarly unaware.)
Other apparent flirtations with taboos seemed greater to me, I suspect, due to cultural differences. That octopus scene — which, for all I can tell, involved no special effects — would never fly in a Hollywood release, for obvious reasons, and I don’t know how flat-out disturbing it would have seemed to a native Korean audience. I found the film’s attitudes towards sex a little odd, too. A long, uncomfortably voyeuristic flashback involving awkward, gropey teenagers felt context-appropriate, but I couldn’t really get my head around the nature of the main-story relationship between the protagonist and — let’s call her “the sushi chef”. While the lack of rational motivation behind their mutual attraction gets explained away at the end, I still got the impression that the audience is meant to find the young chef’s sing-song affection for the shaggy protag rather surprising but still cute and funny, instead of the creepy and gross read I couldn’t avoid taking from it. I’m willing to chalk this up to all manner of missed cultural cues.
I decided that I liked this movie enough that, when it ended and Netflix showed me its “similar to this” list, I proceeded to watch Spike Lee’s ten-years-on American remake starring Josh Brolin. I don’t regret watching it, just for the unique comparative experience it afforded me, but I do regret to say I did not like the latter picture at all.
I did find interesting and legitimate the decision to significantly ramp up the misdirection (for both audience and protagonist) en route to the twist, and I don’t fault the American production for abbreviating certain sex scenes, or making the attitude of the sushi chef towards the protagonist rather more palatable to a western audience. From there, though, it proceeds to drown the film in an absurd level of sloppy violence, like a parody of what I had initially expected to see with the original film, and smothering all subtlety out of it.
Lee’s take on the story came out the same year as the video game Bioshock Infinite, which I also did not like. I find this an apt coincidence, because the protagonist of the American Oldboy made me think of the one from that game: originally an interestingly pathetic superhero concept, who at the start of the second act suddenly turns into a rampaging murderous asshole for the remainder of the story, and whose fate I honestly couldn’t care less about. The surprising and funny corridor fight from the first picture becomes a celebration of celery-twisting Foley effects while the main character, leaping around like he’s plugged into the Matrix, tears all the thugs to bloody chunks with all the suspense of watching someone on a Twitch stream play Mortal Kombat with every cheat turned on.
Also like a bad Twitch stream, characters in the American Oldboy just don’t know when to shut up. This comes to a head during the antagonist’s reveal of his final revenge towards the end of the movie. It takes the same form visually as in the Korean version, but with the addition of the bad guy babbling away in the background, painstakingly explaining the meaning of what we’re looking at. This frees the audience from realizing the horror for themselves, and thus robs that scene’s delicious sucker-punch much of its original strength.
The newer film furthermore replaces the seat-squirming sweaty-teenagers scene with a lengthy, over-the shoulder flashback (again resembling a video game) of a man roaming through his house and murdering every member of his family with a shotgun before turning it on himself, something nowhere to be found in the Korean edition. (Maybe it’s meant to counter the loss of the octopus scene?) Cap this with a carelessly nonsensical happy-ish ending instead of the disturbingly ambiguous finale of the first film, and Lee’s movie just seems hateful, like it resents being watched. I felt punished for disobeying its wishes. With Park’s movie, I felt horrified, certainly, but in a wholly consentual and ultimately rewarding way. In the case of these two takes on Oldboy, I found this crucial element very much lost in translation.