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November 21, 2008 |

By Dustin Rowles | Underappreciated Gems | November 21, 2008 |

Last week, we reported what was surely inevitable: That there’d be an Oldboy remake, this one directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Will Smith. Earlier this week, it was also announced that Poseidon and I Am Legend screenwriter, Mark Protosevich, would be handling script duties. Purely on principle, we tend the reject the idea of a remake outright, but if box-office history is any indication, it usually doesn’t prevent us from seeing the end product. But there’s something even more unsettling about remaking this Korean classic. It’s a beautifully violent film, operatic even, about vengeance, which suits American tastes. But it’s also about guilt and pride in a way that’s uniquely Old World. The plot revelations that unfold over the last half hour of Oldboy work in the context of a Korean film, but in the context of an American film, with American actors, with Will Smith for God’s sake, those same revelations would be laughable. I don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t seen Oldboy yet, but for those who have, can you imagine? The Fresh Prince of Bel Air? Motherfucking Hitch? There isn’t an ounce of King Lear in Will Smith, or a reservoir of misanthropy within Steven Spielberg, which makes them both ill-suited to the project. Tarantino and Kurt Russell, perhaps. But not this.

It’s also a rare for an American film to follow through on a disturbing conclusion, and perhaps no Hollywood studio film has gone as far down that road as the original Oldboy would take them. Under studio pressure, American films always cop out, which is strange considering just how successful a movie that stomach-punches you in the end always seems to do. The Dark Knight, for instance. Or The Departed. Se7en. Test audiences given a score card immediately after being hit in the gut may wish there were a happier, more uplifting, more optimistic denouement, but real audiences with some time to digest a film appreciate the cinematic sternum blow. And perhaps a guy like Steven Spielberg has enough capital to get it made the way it should be made; the problem is, Steven Spielberg is not the type of director who makes these films — there is nothing on his extensive resume that suggests he’d do right by Chan-wook Park, and we already saw what Protosevich did with I Am Legend, which all but guarantees that he’ll completely rip the fangs out of Oldboy’s original screenplay. I can’t even begin to imagine how Will Smith is going to shoehorn his child into this.

On the surface, there is something comfortably simple in how Oldboy starts out, after the initial scene which has Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) holding a man over a building ledge by his tie. The film then immediately jumps back 15 years — Dae-su Oh is a drunk, chattermouth Korean businessman picked up by the police for being an intoxicated idiot. After he’s bailed out, he goes to a pay phone to call home and then … poof. He disappears. A few days later, Dae-su wakes up confined in a hotel room, where he’s kept for the next 15 years. During that decade and a half, Dae-su’s only company is a television set, which tracks time, and informs him that his wife has been killed and he’s been blamed for the murder, and that his daughter has been put in foster care. Trapped and slowly going mad, Dae-su is not even allowed the indignity of killing himself; whenever he attempts suicide, he’s gassed asleep. He passes the time by tattooing himself, shadow-boxing, and planning a Shawshank type escape.

However, just as he’s about to gain his freedom-by-chopstick, Dae-su is inexplicably released back into the world. Confused and bewildered, he makes it his sole mission in life to find his captor(s) and seek revenge. While attempting to track down his kidnapper, however, he also falls in love with a young sushi chef, Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong), with whom he vigorously consummates their relationship. His captor, Woo-jin (Ji-tae Yu), as it turns out, is not too difficult to track down — in fact, he makes himself available to Dae-su and offers him a deal: If Dae-su can figure out Woo-jin’s motive in kidnapping Dae-su, then Woo-jin will kill himself. If he fails, then Mi-do will die.

And so the game unfolds over the course of the rest of the film. Dae-su slowly puts the pieces together and, in doing so, falls into Woo-jin’s trap. The biggest clue lies not in why Woo-jin released Dae-su from captivity, but why he held him for so long in the first place. And the reason, which dawns you on about five minutes before it hits Dae-su, is a complete mindfuck, as is the final 20 minutes of the film, which makes a mockery of the first 90 minutes of teeth-pulling violence.

Oldboy is a beautifully shot film, containing violence that has a SoderBrickian lushness to it. Chan wook Park injects a dose of dark humor to make the blood and pain and the achingly sad tragedy a little easier to swallow without throwing your own self over a building. It’s sort of a weird cross between Kill Bill, The Shining, Eternal Sunshine Spotless Mind and Flowers in the Attic, a bloody, messed-up, perverse love odyssey about vengeance. And Dae-su is brilliant, a wild maelstrom stuck in the middle of an otherwise focused film that’s so perfectly plotted it manages to get under your skin; it clings to you like nicotine, and you’re the fiend trying to sniff a high out of your fingers as you work the movie backwards in your head. It’s a visceral, mad mind trip. And it’s not one I’d particularly like to take with Will Smith and Steven Spielberg.

Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Portland, Maine. He’s wondering if anyone at all understood the headline reference. You can reach him via email, or leave a comment below.

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Underappreciated Gems | November 21, 2008 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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