Oldboy (USA, 2013)

oldboy-movie-poster-2013-1020769011Directed by: Spike Lee. If you haven’t seen the Park Chan-wook original, then please go without any delay and treat yourself to the high water mark in modern Korean gore-suspense (if that’s the right way to describe it). It’s been some years, but from my memory, this movie was almost as good as that one, and in its own right, this is a very admirable American interpretation of the original. After reading about the horrible soft-ending on the Bollywood ripoff in this interview with Park, I was kind of fearing the worst in this Hollywood take on such dark subject matter. But, seeing the name Spike Lee attached to it made me feel pretty good about it, and it turns out that I was right. This was overall a pretty damn good movie, and certainly much more interesting and oddly re-watchable than most other things coming out of Hollywood in this era of “Young Adult” and superhero franchises, Fast and Furious sequels and geri-action movies. I have no problem giving this movie a bunch of praise, but as with all of these things, it’s important to keep in mind that, for all of the artistic touches and craftsmanlike expertise and individual character and vibrancy that Spike Lee and Josh Brolin and the rest of the filmmakers (including a wonderful appearance by Michael Imperioli) bring to this American movie, it is a remake. All of those people did a great job with the story they had, and that story was one that was directly borrowed and re-made from an original movie made by Koreans 10 years ago. And as much as I enjoyed this movie, the performances of these American actors (including a great turn by the always amazing Sam Jackson), as much as I would not hesitate to say that this is a “good movie” and that “you should see this movie,” I feel like I have to make endless declarations and provisions to remind myself and everybody else that this movie is a good movie because the original movie was a good movie. You know? If the original Oldboy wasn’t very good, then this remake would be a marked improvement on the old one, not just a remake. Or if this movie was vastly different in structure and quality from the original, then I would say that this is a striking and original movie in its own right. But as it is, the American production seems to be going out of its way to reiterate the other movie fairly closely, and the major changes they did make are just to “Americanize” it—drop most of the weird shit, take the epic one-shot hammer fight scene and blow it up to huge proportions, etc. As always, I didn’t take notes and I’m not equipped to give this film a close reading (these things I do are never close readings), so I might just leave it there.

One last note, though, about the violence in this movie, if only as a note to remind myself later of a possibility for a larger post. The violence in this movie was another interesting example of modern Hollywood’s use of CGI and modern special effects in general to attempt to make violence more “real”—full frontal, unflinching, “full”, unobscured violence—and producing the effect (with degrees of intention varying from director to director) that the violence comes across as very un-real, almost cartoonish, and (I apologize in advance) almost “hyper-real.” This struck me watching the later Cronenberg movies (from A History of Violence to Cosmopolis), and other modern “alt” landmarks like Looper and Drive (but, oddly, not really in any of the other Nicolas Winding Refn movies I’ve seen). In all of these cases, the technology available to the filmmakers makes it possible to “show everything”, giving us portrayals of violence that were unavailable to earlier filmmakers. There are no cuts or trick editing to mask the squib or the prosthetic or what have you. It’s just a person standing there in a shot, and another character walks in and shoots them; or we see a character’s face totally intact, and then in the same shot, without cutting, watching their nose get cut off or something. It’s disturbing, because it looks “real”, that’s the way that humans actually perceive “reality”, but what interests me is the fact that, of course, this isn’t how we actually perceive things. In this movie, I’m talking specifically about the flashback scene that gives us the motivation for the bad guy’s entire revenge plot, and the entire movie. When the rich kid’s father has a meltdown and shoots his entire family with a shotgun, including the rich kid, who gets shot in the shoulder, all of it is completely jarring and horrifying. But the fact that it’s so graphic means that we can see how completely false it is—we know that it’s obviously CGI violence, not real violence, and we can react to the fake violence the way that we would react to real violence. And there’s something in here that I’m paraphrasing badly from Zizek when he was talking about pornography—something about how “full frontal”, the media that claims to show us “everything”, is actually showing us something empty and lacking, because that’s not how humans actually experience sex, or in this case, violence. The more unflinching and direct and “real” the image gets, the more divorced from reality it gets, and I think that this accounts for the way that these depictions of film violence exist for me in a kind of no-man’s-land, a limbo between reality and artifice, not quite belonging to either. But I’ve yammered on long enough.


3 responses to “Oldboy (USA, 2013)

  1. Pingback: Avengers: Age of Ultron (USA, 2015) | Offhand Reviews·

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  3. Pingback: Wind River (USA, 2017) | Offhand Reviews·

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