A man is kidnapped and held hostage for years in solitary confinement. When he is inexplicably released, he embarks on an obsessive mission to discover who orchestrated his punishment, only to find he is still trapped in a web of conspiracy and torment.
You never stopped to ask the most fundamental question of all: Why did I let you go?
You won’t be sure whether to cheer or go to confession after you watch these intriguing and daring films! Oldboy is an amazing Korean film from 2003 directed by Chan-wook Park, who you might know from directing another incestuous film Stoker. Just recently, in 2013, there was an American remake by Spike Lee and I am happy to say that Lee’s is just as sick and twisted as the original. It is a film that probably wouldn’t have been made (or at least not to the large scale it was) if it weren’t for the acclaimed original. While a lot of critics feel that the sequel is a waste, I think that it is another way to get a great story like this out there to people who may not otherwise be subjected to it, or have access to the original. The films are shameless and depraved, and I am sure many people went into the film being absolutely shocked (and possibly disgusted.)
The inspiration for the Korean hit was actually a Japanese manga, that is why Park’s film has such an illustrated and visual feel. He also uses surrealism and fantastic semiotics that really adds to the film, like the angel wings.
I would recommend viewing this original version first so you can enjoy and understand all the references and homages in Spike Lee’s re-imagining.
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD
The story in a nutshell: In Oldboy, the main character Oh Dae-Su is kidnapped and held prisoner for 15 years in a hotel room. He is never told why he is being held and is released with no explanation. Upon his release he meets a young chef named Mi-Do who takes him in and takes care of him.
Over time the two fall in love as Dae-Su also tracks down the people responsible for his abduction. When he finally catches up to his abductors, Dae-Su is shocked to learn it was all a revenge scheme by Woo Jin, a man Dae-Su had shamed years earlier. Dae-Su had revealed Woo Jin’s incestuous relationship with his sister, causing her to kill herself. In order to seek revenge Woo Jin kidnapped Dae-Su, but the kidnapping wasn’t the revenge. The vengeance plot was in fact pointing Dae Su towards Mi-do upon his release, because Mi-Do was his daughter!
At its core, Oldboy is a movie about the lengths people will go to recover from the pain of their past and what they will endure to keep that pain from infecting the loved ones around them.
In the original film, Woo-Jin Lee engages in an incestuous relationship with his sister. When classmate Oh Dae-Su inadvertently spreads rumors about the relationship, Woo-Jin’s sister kills herself (due to the external social pressure that finds incest wrong.) It is supposed to be an altruistic suicide, protecting their secret from being known, as she tells him that she knows he has been afraid and wants to assure him that she regrets nothing.
To get revenge, Woo-Jin Lee captures and imprisons Oh Dae-Su for 15 years, then manipulates him into initiating a sexual relationship with his own daughter. It is impossible for a person who witnesses someone else’s death not to be implicated, and when Woo-Jin Lee lets his sister fall to her death, even though it follows her wishes, it is as if he has killed her, which increases his sense of guilt about her death and the offense that caused it.
The antagonist (Woo-Jin Lee) obviously was not a normal person. He did not lead a normal life, as was evident from his extreme wealth, his connections, and the incestuous relationship he had with his sister. He was extremely attached to his sister, perhaps even possessive or obsessive, and her death (suicide) left a deep impression on him. That’s why revenge became the only motive in his life. It also seemed that he was still deeply emerged in the memories of his sister. He felt like there was nothing in his life without her. He wanted to die from the very beginning. But not before he had his revenge, and put Oh Dae-Su in his shoes.
Once Oh Dae-Su learns he had been incestuous with his own daughter, he cuts out his own tongue in front of Woo-Jin Lee and swears to keep it a secret. He doesn’t want his daughter to know. Lee finally shows some mercy on him and does not let out his secret, and then proceeds to kill himself in the elevator.
This is dark stuff, and it’s difficult to imagine any Hollywood studio wanting to go near it. A plot which revolves around two incestuous relationships would likely put off mainstream crowds. But, Spike Lee has never been one to shy away from morally ambiguous material. He didn’t have any problems keeping true to the more cringe-worthy elements in his remake, that I felt stayed true to the original.
Spike Lee’s version of Oldboy goes all the way. It isn’t a watered down Hollywood remake. In fact, it actually contained more incest!
[Elizabeth Olsen is no stranger to father/daughter incest on screen as she played a victim of child abuse in the 2011 film Silent House. She is next set to star in the film In Secret, where she is in a loveless marriage to her sickly cousin.]
There are things that are the same and things that are different in both film versions ( like the imprisonment changed from 15 to 20 years, the twist, and the ending.)
This twist ending brings about a perfect irony in both films, but in the remake the ending is even more incestuous than the original. The puppet master’s character (Adrian) – let’s just say that he believes incest is a game the whole family can play!
It is revealed that Adrian wasn’t seeking revenge because his sister committed suicide and they were lovers (as in the Korean version), but that he and his sister were both in love and having a sexual relationship with their father! Although this type of incest makes sense with what he does to Joe (the Oh Dae-Su of the remake) I felt the way they introduced that to the audience was just so comic-able and absurd! Like an Adam Sandler movie!
Adrian was from a rich family and he and his sister both attended the high school that Joe did. One night, Joe accidentally catches Adrian’s sister having sex with an older man, later revealed as her and Adrian’s father. Joe later tells his friend Chucky, who in turn informs the whole school. The rumors force the two Pryce children to move away where soon after Adrian’s father Mr. Pryce kills himself, his wife, and daughter – leaving Adrian wounded but alive.
The last few minutes also differ greatly from the Korean film. I think it made great use of a key plot element (the prison and all it stands for) and suited the remake. But I enjoyed the original’s ending because it seems to justify incest in its own way. The 2003 film ends with the protagonist’s amorous union with his daughter, with the two not knowing their relationship after Oh Dae-Su has his memories erased. He returns to her and they live creepily ever after.
“Even though I’m no more than a monster, don’t I have the right to live?” – Oldboy
Going back into the prison at the end of the 2013 remake, although a nice twist, also “gave in,” like most Hollywood films tend to do with material like this.
I also enjoyed the “villain” so much more in the original. Woo-Jin Lee and his sister’s relationship was more interesting, and I also liked the use of the gas when Oh Dae-Su was in prison and even in this scene after he sleeps with his daughter and Woo-Jin Lee lays in bed with them. So creepy!
I thought Adrian was sort of over the top and a stereotypical American villain in the remake. I also didn’t know why he had a scantily-clad sexy female sidekick when he was gay…
All in all I LOVED and enjoyed both versions, and am just so ecstatic that there are two versions of this great story and film around; the original Korean masterpiece and the American remake. Be sure to check them out!
Purchase Oldboy from Amazon.