Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Oldboy (2013), A Review

*spoilers to follow*

What I will attempt in this review is to showcase similarities and contrasts in both films. I will admit up front that I refuse to own the original film. This is not because I don't consider it to be among my top twenty or so, or because I find it repulsive (though there is certainly repulsive content in it; not the point). Rather, it is because I can recall the horror and vicarious nature of over seventy percent of the film upon simply reflection. I find it too effective to watch or own. Once was enough.

Just setting up my background so this review may make more sense.

Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) is not known as much of a saint. In fact, when we first meet him, he's the type of person from whom you wouldn't buy a used car. Which is why a man named Adrian Pryce (Sharlto Copley) wants him to suffer, locking him away for twenty years in a room, tormenting him with silence, regret and really really bad pot stickers.


I will contrast the two films (03 and 13) with reference to "original" and "revision."

The original film was stark, poetic and largely silent when it needed to be. The lighting was a haunting palette of saturated greens and rich yellows which reflected the sallow nature of the lurid material. It had, for lack of a better term, a pulpy feel.

The revision has largely stripped away much of the color palette and, with this, the sometimes needed warmth. The editing is quicker, more frantic, lending the film a far more jarring feel that I feel was necessary. Within the revision, the shots alternate between hyper-film school (a few long takes done generally well) and fairly standard. In other words, it reflects a far more stripped down thriller rather than the more meditate state of the original.

But, the most interesting component was kept (at least one of the more impressive action set pieces appears in both versions), and that was the hallway slug fest. In the original, it was sometimes telegraphed with poor/no contact made. However, in keeping the shot slow and moving at the speed of the fight, the original kept us far more engaged with the protagonist. This results in the audience feeling weakened when he is weak, in pain when he is in pain.

In the revision, the choreography is largely improved upon, and it looked as if much of it was done in one take. The blows are convincing, the stabbings more pointed. Pun somewhat intended. However, the frantic nature of these revision fights (one of the few instances of genuine excitement in the film) did reduce it to a far more standard action scene,l though mildly undone by the uncut nature of the fight.

My lack of excitement can be largely summed up in the idiom, "it worked better before. Now its just noise."


In the original, you have the incest reveal at the end. This included, if memory serves me right, only the siblings. This kept the story more intimate, but it did beg some questions as to how this could be kept a secret amongst a family. Though, possibly, it did add to the tension. So consider this a reflection rather than an argument.

In this revision, the subplot is expanded to include the father, who was having sex with the antagonist (Copley in this version) and with his sister. It is also intimated that he was intimate with his sister. The subplot works better in that it creates an air of consistency as well as expanding the nature of Pryce's sins and generational exploits.

So the revision, I think, improves upon the reveal. However, the way this is *revealed* is rather poor: we are literally walked through the steps and I imagine the audience will have figured things out *long* before Joe has. In the original, I had no idea until it had to be explained to me. Here, though likely because I knew the original ending, the finale is lackluster and rather dull.

So the finale is more emotionally traumatic in the original, and the subplot expansion helps the revision lend itself some credence.

In regards to acting, I don't think Brolin can live up to Min-sik Choi's iconic performance. This in no way impugns Brolin's talent, and he enlivens an otherwise averagely-written role. Copley is a difficult performance to evaluate, and will likely divide fans more than the changes I've noted above. In my opinion, I think the character is grating until the end, and Copley makes him truly despondent and sly, though like Brolin, his performance is overshadowed by the original. The rest of the cast is, sadly, forgettable.

In regards the original, pacing was an issue for me. I did feel 20 minutes could've been sacrificed. Berardinelli makes the same point in his review. However, I think the poignancy of the original was that it took it's sweet time. The revision, once Joe is set free, barrels along at such a pace that character development is reduced to reaction and overreaction. Joe does nothing except search the Internet (or have someone else do it) and then figure out something that was incredibly easy to find. The way the plot was laid out reminded me of the way one roughly unfurls a rug: just roll the whole thing out all the way and then walk over it. The original, instead, was more interested in unfolding the rug, one side at a time.

So the result is mixed. The revision removes much of the character depth and nuance for the sake of headbanging it's way to the finale. The original, for its faults, had patience for a finale that was generally worth waiting for.

The writing has some killer lines, but is otherwise unmemorable. Simply, there is no true suspense because everything is laid out for Joe to find. Its simplified to the point of being telegraphed a mile away.


Actions result in consequences. A snide insult can lead to a lifetime of sadness and guilt. In the original, we have true reflection in that the protagonist has to completely confront his inner self, his inner darkness. His list because a vomit transubstantiation. His salvation is partly due to his regurgitation of the past. Here, the sins of the past are largely brushed over to Joe until the end.

I remember thinking about the doctrine of sin when I watched the original, sitting alone in my dorm room, staring at the ceiling, wondering what the hell I had just watched. I felt as if I needed to flush my system with purell. The level of depravity and wretchedness on display haunted me as it forced me to reconsider my life, what it meant be to human and what it called into question about myself. In some sense, the film (original and revision) is meant as a reflection on the nature of depraved recoil. Or karma even.

What does it mean to sin, and what does it mean to enact retribution? A sin while drunk can lead to nothing of note, or it could lead to disaster. A sin with a heavy hand deserves the downfall of one's self, and a sin with a low hand invites ridicule. The retribution of Pryce upon Joe is, in a way, characteristic of how we all view the world: do unto others as they did unto you. Feast upon them before they can grab a fork.

The film invites you to live vicariously through injustice, perversion, pain and sorrow. It invites you to look, and defies you to look away.


So, in summation, the revision does make some needed tweaks. However, it sacrifices far too much in the process. It sacrifices the characters for shells, it lessens the impact upon the protagonist and the denouement feels like a cop out, for me at least.

Joe pays them to put him back in the room to live out the rest of his days, whereas in the original, you have a logical conclusion to a soulless man. Here, it feels like an attempt to redeem Joe, which I am normally in favor of. But, I am reminded that just because someone does something good doesn't remove the stain of recoil. Something has to give.

Hopefully, it isn't us.



These are brief notes I scribbled down while watching the revision. 

The hit woman for Pryce is not only highly sexualized, but serves no purpose other than to walk around half naked and be brutally killed. I was bothered by this, and I'm not certain if I am overstating my thoughts. But I was disturbed by how inconsequential she served the plot except to provide pretty skin.


I cannot give this a star rating. Not because I don't believe in a numerical system, but because I simply cannot decide what I would rate this film. The content and the nature of how the film is makes it incredibly difficult for me. I just don't know how to rate the film. The original had the same effect on me. I just don't know how to measure the film.

Technically, both are fairly strong. Narratively, there are glaring complementary weaknesses and strengths. Thematically, the same. The original had a profound effect on me, whereas the revision lacks a heart and soul.

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