Oldboy Seen Anew
The story of Oldboy is already a lurid legend among comic book lovers and
cult film followers for its epic, mystery-filled vendetta. The fascination with
it began in the late 90s, when Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi created an
eight-volume manga about a man who was mysteriously locked away in a private
prison with only a television set as a companion for years on end - only, upon
his release, to set out to hunt down those who had stolen his life away and
finally figure out what he had done to deserve this unthinkable punishment.
That unsettling premise then inspired master director Park Chan Wook's 2003
film starring Choi Min-Sok in an experience that shocked, unnerved and moved
audiences around the world. The film was so stylishly explosive in its
construction -- rife with choreographed martial arts battles, Hitchcockian
suspense, and a primal kind of poetry -- that Park was dubbed "the Quentin
Tarantino of the East." But he also brought to the story a surprising humanism
amidst the moral whirlpool. In exploring the many ways in which a man may be
imprisoned - physically, by circumstances and perhaps most terrifyingly, in his
mind - the film had many comparing the story of this man who doesn't understand
his fate, whose TV is his only friend, whose physical freedom doesn't only
continues to haunt him, to life in the modern world.
Among the many fans of the film was Spike Lee. Lee may be best known in
Hollywood for his hard-hitting social commentary films-among them, the
Oscar -nominated Do The Right Thing, She's Gotta Have It, Malcolm X, 25th Hour
and the landmark Hurricane Katrina documentary When The Levees Broke -- but he
has always been fascinated by the allure of the thriller and human behavoir. He
recently made his own mark on the genre with the smart, sly Inside Man, starring
Denzel Washington in the story of an ingenious bank heist.
As it did for so many others, Oldboy consumed Lee the first time he saw it,
years ago. "I was just blown away by it," he recalls. "It was a completely
unique story with all the best elements of mystery and revenge, portrayed in the
grittiest possible of ways. People had never seen anything like it -- I hadn't
It was only later, however, when Lee read Mark Protosevich's screenplay for
an American revision of Oldboy that he began daring to imagine how he might
approach the story in his own way. He was not at all interested in trying to
somehow one-up Park Chan Wook; instead, he was stepped back from the original
and trusted his own personal response to the material.
"I never thought of Oldboy as a remake," the director explains. "I saw it
more as an interpretation of a great story that can be represented in many
different ways. Park Chan Wook made a great film, but even before that, the
original source was the Japanese manga -- and this was an opportunity to explore
a new form of story-telling for the material."
To create that form, Lee says he was commited to respecting the Korean film,
but not to copying it. "When we first started talking about Oldboy, Josh Brolin
sought the blessing of Park Chan Wook and his words to us were 'Whatever you do,
make your own film,'" he recalls.
That is precisely what Lee set out to do. He says that he did not worry about
shifting the story from its Japanese origins and equally famed Korean landscape
to American terrain. "The story is so great it would work wherever you placed
it. But the one thing I knew is that we could not shy away from any of the
subject matter or themes," he says.
On the contrary, Lee wanted to take a more primal approach to the story. He
notes that at the heart of his interpretation of the material is the idea of a
man being reduced to his most animalistic instincts, which became part and
parcel of Josh Brolin's intense performance as Joe Doucett.
"When Joe is locked up, he reverts back to those animal instincts which are
in all of us, but we do the best we can to suppress them," Lee explains. "In
most civilizations we're schooled to keep that stuff in check or at least, don't
let it out until you're behind closed doors. But we're still instinctual animals
Even as he's overtaken by these primitive urges for sheer retribution, Lee
sees Joe as a man also seeking salvation, seeking to make amends for a grim fate
he increasingly believes he himself set in motion. "This is a revenge film," Lee
concludes, "but it's also at its heart a story about a men's search for
redemption. Joe starts out an alcoholic, a substance abuser, not a very good
person and it takes the act of being locked up for 20 years to begin to see the
Most of all, says Lee, fans of the original film should expect "something
different - but still at the same time paying homage to what has come before."
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