Writing about Park Chan Wook’s Old Boy (2003) — a LOVELY job
Perhaps the most spoilable movie ever
Luckily, Spike Jonze decided to remake it and I can write about the differences.
It works really well. Unfortunately, you will probably have to see both the films to know what I am talking about. (If you don’t feel like it, watch just the original.)
1. The Prison – Is it a stereotype, or do the American prisoners always behave the same. Strong feeling that all the prison movies strongly affected not only Oldboy, but the image of guy in a cell that we all imagine and expect.
To make some sense: In the Korean version the imprisonment takes shape of what Lisa Purse calls a ‘narrative of becoming’ (1). The action hero fights against his fate to become an extraordinarily strong individual. But additionally, Dae-su gains an aura of solemnity during the time. His silence and stern behaviour make him a character we sympathize with (AND, a parenthetical spoiler!!!, it also makes possible the devastating effect of the ending, where he is devoid of even the last bit of dignity he has).
The American version spends most of the time that Joe spends in prison to set up a trick for those who saw the original film, showing the fake daughter on television. Sadly, this slight confusion disappears about a minute after when Joe is set free and meets the medical team. The rest of his twenty years seems to consist solely of building a musculature.
2. The Fight – You know which one I mean. If not, you just have to watch the film.
Chan Wook’s version again comes out much cleaner. Not only that the scene unfolds in one long take without cut, but the image is not graphically interrupted in any other way. Compared to Jonze’s one, which is partially obstructed by a wire fence, the original scena certainly keeps the tension and attention way more firmly. You can see the fighter’s faces, the fatigue, the pain.
The strong emotional impact of the violence in Chan Wook’s film lies in focusing on well-known types of pain. For example, hardly anyone knows how it feels to be cut by a chainsaw. We cannot imagine such pain. On the other hand, most of us know very well how hammer-made pain feels, and that is what Chan-Wook relies on.
This is partly the cause of one great disappointment – the torture scene. Cutting off pieces of skin? I wonder who and for how long was inventing this particular ‘original way to kill someone’. There is no way it could equal the gritty and astonishingly simple method of Dae-su, that focuses on one of the most sensitive parts of human body (also intensified by the myth of the dentist).
As to the fight in American version, it reminds me a computer game. Almost palpable Korean bodies were replaced by choreographed figurines, and the suggestive image of pain by a hardly discernible massacre.
3. The Comedy – Without any inappropriate excesses, the Korean Old Boy has its light moments. The opening scene at the police station, young Dae-su smoking a cigarette upside down… I’m sure you noticed.
Forget the comedy with Jonze. Either it is overridden by repulsive vulgarity or by testosteron and violence.
Generally, the American film seems to be trying to set the story in a western space, using western images, western modes of behaviour, and western kind of action. It did not work for me.
The quirky stylization, occasional use of hypnosis and unusual erotic of the Korean original appeals to me much more than the rough, down-to-earth and vomiting remake. (Surely I might just be superficial.)
Still the Korean mastery of the narrative shines from the old Old Boy. One has to admire the economic use of space (Woo-jin spying in the internet café), the dramatic build-ups (Woo-jin getting dressed while uncovering his secret), and, indeed, the power of the plot twist built on the good old Oedipus Rex.
+ The ending of the remake is by far the most unbelievable thing about it. Feels like…
Now you know. Sweet dreams.