In our Film Swap Challenge series, our reviewers assign each other films to write about: films that one writer enjoys or values, and the other writer hasn’t seen – and which might be slightly out of their comfort zone! Here, Dave Bond is challenged to write about Oldboy by Amy Walker.
Films that adapt comic books tend often to miss the point as to what it is about that medium that works for the reader, and what from that format is adaptable to a different art form. Take Watchmen – the 2009 Zack Snyder film, not the recent HBO TV Series – barring a few liberties (in particular the denouement), it was a fairly faithful adaptation of the Alan Moore limited series comic book, but lacking any real understanding of the material beyond the visuals (a statement that applies to almost any Snyder product). Over time, filmmakers have improved at interpreting the look of the drawn panel, and they have managed to learn to mimic the implied rhythms of the stories. What they can never fully capture is the internal voice of the protagonist.
Over the years, we’ve seen narration from lead characters, and internal thoughts communicated through dreams and daydreams alike; but we have rarely, if ever got that low-key conversation that we have with ourselves as we wonder what we should do next, what a person we see on the street is up to, and any number of other scenarios in life. This leads to the point that one film – ever, to my memory – has captured this internal mind in a way that is accurate, and faithful to the comic book format. That film is Park Chan-wook’s 2003 film Oldboy. Though it could be argued the internal monologue is similarly achieved in the decidedly non-comic book Memento, the early Christopher Nolan effort.
I had seen Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Lady Vengeance. I have a passing acquaintance with Korean Cinema, but – for some reason – I had not seen Oldboy (or its 2013 Spike Lee remake). The point about it capturing the rhythms of the comic book is there to reflect that I did not know it was an adaptation of manga, until about 15 minutes into the film, where it was clear that it had captured that art form so accurately, that I had to go to check that I was right in thinking it was such an adaptation. There really isn’t anything quite like this film.
Oldboy tells the story of Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), a man we first meet in 1988 (after a short, context-free flash forward to the present day) while in a police station, where he’s been arrested for drunkenness. When a friend comes to collect him, they stop off to make a call to Dae-su’s family home, as he is late home for his daughter’s fourth birthday. While his friend is on the payphone, Dae-su goes missing – taken, it appears by a mysterious figure obscured by an umbrella.
Waking up imprisoned in a hotel room, with nothing but a television to pass the time, he finds his meals and personal grooming taken care of, but with no company, and no idea of why he has been locked away. He learns from TV reports that his wife has been murdered, and that he (still presumed missing) is the prime suspect. He spends the next 15 years shadowboxing, staying fit (or, rather, getting fit: this is a performance that required its lead to gain and lose weight for the two different timeframes), and working on his escape. On the eve of escape, he is hypnotised in his room by a mysterious woman, and awakes on a rooftop – it is now 2003.
Events lead him to Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung), a young sushi chef who takes him in while he works to figure out why he was imprisoned, who did it, why he was released, and why he has been given a set of nice clothes and an expensive watch, as well as some money. Discovering the hotel in which he was held, his new-found skills for intimidation and violence – with the most unsettling use of ‘dentistry’ since Marathon Man – lead him to the culprit, Lee Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae), a former school colleague who never forgave him for events that led to the death of Woo-jin’s sister.
From there it is probably not wise to say any more about the plot, as it would be easy to let details go that would lead to reader to.. well, not a twist exactly, this is not a ‘he was dead all along’-type situation, more that the story unfolds towards a plot line of which it is better not to have fore-knowledge: it is the solving of a mystery, not the revealing of a twist per se. I have to say, I did know, as it has somewhat permeated film Twitter, and became a talking point for a second time when the remake was released.
Tough, gritty and disturbing themes and action are very much part of this director’s modus operandi, but where Oldboy differs is in three obvious areas: first, the aforementioned internal voice; second, camerawork that tends to reflect his internal state at any given time – so when he is drunk, for example, we get little jump-cuts and slightly unsettled work to mimic the mini-blackouts of the heavily inebriated. The colour palette is, in general, a little washed out and sickly, but then, so is Dae-su. The final area is the fluidity of tone. In some respects this is reminiscent of Parasite, this year’s Best Picture at the Academy Awards – and directed by Bong Joon-ho, who directed Snowpiercer, on which Chan-wook was a producer.
Parasite, is far more comedic, but Oldboy manages to take a dark story and infuse it with hints of the comedic, with one shot of a suicide being surprisingly funny. It is a drama, with elements of horror (specifically body horror, in places). It is an action film with comedic overtones, yet entirely jet-black in end result. Overlaying all of this, it is a Greek tragedy. It achieves all of this without once jarring the viewer. It is a genuinely wonderful piece of work, and it should be sought out by anyone (well, anyone with a strong stomach for violence). Inadvertently, there are parallels with the film I set for Amy, in relating the tale of a man dealing with regret, not being in control of his destiny (past a certain point, anyway) and a work taking a fresh approach to visual representation of the story that stands apart from anything else in the medium.
As an epilogue, I went straight to the 2013 Spike Lee version for a direct comparison. Here, the lead character is Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), with Elizabeth Olsen as Marie, that film’s equivalent to Mi-do. Sharlto Copley plays Adrian Doyle Pryce, the antagonist and cause of Joe’s imprisonment. It is to this film, to some degree, what Matt Reeves’ Let Me In is to the superior Tomas Alfredson film Let The Right One In. That is to say, it is – by definition – more accessible to the general film-going public, by nature of it being in the English language and, were you to see it first, it would seem serviceable enough (though Let Me In could be characterised as far better than ‘serviceable’).
In both cases the devil is in the detail; with the original release – in both cases – feeling like the rawer, more inventive, subversive and risk-taking product. Certainly, in how it details its main storyline, the remake is more than content to pull the main punch landed by the original’s ending, as well as, arguably, to weaken the rationale/motive behind the whole thing. Oldboy 2003 is definitely not for everyone, but it is a terrific experience for those receptive to violent, genre-bending Korean cinema.