Between 2005-2017, an average of 53% of the top 100 US-grossing movies were adaptions. During the mid-2000’s, almost one in six top-grossing movies were re-imaginings (Follows, 2018). One of the biggest during this time was Spike Lee’s remake (2013) of Park Chan-wook’s classic, Oldboy (2003).
Oldboy is a South Korean neo-noir action thriller film based on the Japanese manga of the same name. The plot follows Oh Dae-su as he is imprisoned in a hotel room styled cell for 15 years without knowing his captor or their motives. When released, he’s invited to track down his captor and embark on a rampage of revenge and violence (IMDb, 2003).
The original film is regarded as a cult classic, with 8.4/10 ratings on IMDb and 81% on Rotten Tomatoes. While the artistic quality and uniqueness of the film can be attributed to its international success, the the emergence of movie piracy and broadband access at the time also played an important role. Discussion forums during 2003 were littered with recommendations to the film, along with other well-received Asian films such as Battle Royale, Akira and Princess Mononoke (Reddit, 2018).
The global success of Oldboy led its cultural hybridisation in Hollywood with the American director Spike Lee’s remake of the same name in 2013. At times the remake was incredibly faithful to the original, but when Spike Lee decides to include his own creative decisions, it either ignores the complete nature of the film or only serves to be more palatable to American audiences (Peterson, 2014). The remake turned the original story into another American action film with overused themes of hyper-masculinity and “save the girl” plot devices (Jung, 2010).
To focus on one particular scene, we can look at the iconic fight scene. In the original, the fight scene is a near perfectly crafted single shot scene that sees Dae-su outnumbered, fighting his way through a corridor. Dae-su’s male vulnerability is highlighted from their alienated situations (Jung, 2010). There are points where he is knocked down and out of breath, and as an audience you can feel the claustrophobia as he hangs onto to his anger and stubbornness to allow him to continue. Differently, the remake sees the American counterpart take on similar foes with almost absolute ease. He never seems outnumbered and is essentially invincible until he is stabbed in the back (AlternatingLine, 2014). The shot is not a one take and Spike Lee’s adaption misses the meaning of the original scene and in a way, culturally appropriates the scene. American audiences are used to seeing the protagonist be a Terminator like figure, and winning every fight, but what made the original Oldboy so appealing to me, is that a lot of the time it barely even felt like he was winning.
Action movie tropes within American films played a detrimental role in the cultural hybridisation of Oldboy. Though even the original was adapted from a Japanese manga, the nature of the story and characters remained, whereas, Spike Lee’s remake is stylistically indecisive and overly Americanised.
AlternatingLine 2014, The Remaker: Oldboy (2003) vs. Oldboy (2013), online video, 24 March, AlternatingLine, viewed on 20 August 2019, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oSz249SDAMM>.
Follows, S 2018, ‘The prevalence of sequels, remakes and original movies’, Stephen Follows, 30 April, viewed on 19 August 2019, <https://stephenfollows.com/the-prevalence-of-sequels-remakes-and-original-movies/>.
IMDb 2003, ‘Oldboy’, viewed on 20 August 2019, <https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0364569/plotsummary>.
Jung, S. 2010, Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption, e-book, accessed 20 August 2019, <https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1xcrmm>.
Peterson, J 2014, ‘OLDBOY Is A Case Study in How Not to Do a Remake’, Film Inquiry, 24 March, viewed on 20 August 2019, <https://www.filminquiry.com/oldboy-2013-case-study-remake/>.
Reddit 2018, ‘Why is Oldboy the most widely acclaimed and popular Korean film?’, viewed on 20 August 2019, <https://www.reddit.com/r/TrueFilm/comments/8zexpg/why_is_oldboy_the_most_widely_acclaimed_and/>.