Same Old, Same Old – Oldboy Reborn

oldboy1_500One of the most interesting bit of news to have come out from Hollywood in recent times is that Hollywood has finally, totally, and utterly confirmed a remake ‘Oldboy’, a manga that initially spawned a Korean film by the same name.

This has actually been rumoured to be the case for a while, and it’s no wonder: the point of reference when people here the word ‘Oldboy’ in this context tends to be of Park Chan-wook’s masterpiece, rather than the original source material. As such, news of its Western remake has been met with a fair amount of people raising their arms together in despair, and say, “Not again!”

For those not in the know, ‘Oldboy’ is tells the story of a man who, without warning, was one day taken away from his family, and is locked inside a hotel room for 15 years without knowing what’s going on. Eventually, he was released, with less than a week to find out why. Sounds simple enough, but the trick lies in the storytelling, which, in my personal opinion, is as good as any movie I’ve seen. “A powerful film not because of what it depicts,” claimed Roger Ebert, “but because of the depths of the human heart which it strips bare.”

It should be noted that the initial uproar is over the fear that Hollywood will butcher another one of Asia’s finest. Films like the Infernal Affairs trilogy, the Ring series, the Grudge films…in fact, almost anything and everything that has made money east of India will, sooner or later, end up in the clutches of those evil Hollywood executives. We tend not to hear so much of remakes of Bollywood films, somehow. Perhaps because they can sometimes be copycats in their own right as well (see below).

He took MC Hammer's song a little too seriously...

It should be noted, though, that the adaptation is planned to be of the manga itself, created by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi, and not the Korean movie. Nevertheless, Smith and Spielberg are nothing if not accomplished performers in their own fields, and such standard bearers tend to be meticulous in their research. I have no doubt whatsoever that though the film won’t be based on the Korean film itself, they would definitely have seen it least once or twice or five times before the first film roll is called for. So Park’s direction and Choi Min-sik’s acting will definitely have some sort of influence in more ways than one.

Not that all the of the Koreans would mind about it so much. If you haven’t yet guessed, ‘Oldboy’ is very much a Japanese product. Here’s something that is slightly more left-field: not all Koreans like ‘Oldboy’ all that much. It is a fine film, but there is also the feeling that it is “not original”. It is, after all, adapted from a manga, and..shock, horror! A Japanese manga at that. At the risk of becoming too political, I suggest you Google Korea, Japan, and Dokdo. Come to think of it, you can take Dokdo out of the equation, and still have a decent picture of what’s going on. The relations between the countries are not all that great now, and it wasn’t all that great in the past either. So it’s not as if ‘Oldboy’ is totally loved by all here.

"ET...give free 'Oldboy' tickets..."

Somewhat ironic, I think, considering the current uproar over the planned Hollywood remake. Is it really a bad thing, though? Sure, they are bound to depart from the original source, as have happened not only with adaptations of films outside of the West, but also of their own sources. You can take your pick from the numerous historical epics, dramatic biopics, “based on a true story” stories, etc. Simply put, when anything is (re)adapted into a different medium, the rules changes as well. The biggest tends to be time. A book has an unlimited time limit; histories and lives are built up over years and decades, if not more. A modern-day film, running over two hours, will have problems selling both to distributors and to the audience. Unless, of course, if you have really big sets, huge budgets, and big-time special effects (‘Lord of the Rings’). If not, then…well, you’ll have a difficult time even having film people watch your film (Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Che’). Throw in the cultural differences when you adapt from another country, language, and culture, and it’s not surprise that you end up pissing a fair amount of people (‘Mongol’).

Another, and far more obvious reason that doesn’t work in favour of remakes, is that people already know the story. A major part of my emotional involvement in any film lies in the discovery of the story. With remakes, even the audiences will have known what to expect. The ending may or may not be the same, but the general development of plot and character loses a fair amount of its ability to surprise. Had I not know what to expect from ‘The Departed’, for example, I think I would enjoy it a fair amount more (as it stands, I still did enjoy it a fair amount).

Not finding any live squid restaurants, he settled for something else...

What does that all mean for this particular project, though? Truth be told, in this case, I think that the makers of ‘Oldboy’ could not have asked for more, really. You can’t get any more A-list, any more Hollywood than Steven Spielberg and Will Smith. With the two of them, they could easily get almost anyone they want, busy schedules-permitting. Creativity and money won’t even be an issue; nothing has been announced on that front yet, but I am willing to bet that a Spielberg/Smith collaboration will not suffer for a lack of money in any shape or form. As an aside, the Korean film made less than $15 million worldwide, which wouldn’t even be enough for all of Will Smith.

That’s not to say that Spielberg will necessarily direct it. I think that he may well have a crack at it, but according to fairly reliable sources, he won’t really be free until three years from now. Things may well change (as they did for ‘War of the Worlds’), but I’m willing to bet that he might let it go to someone else and wear the producer’s cap this time around. Word has been bandied around that David Fincher would make a good director for the film. He doesn’t seem to be a bad choice, and to be honest, I can’t quite think of another suitable director for the time being. I do think that the best choice may well be the first: a certain Mr. Park Chan-wook. Now that would be a blockbuster move for both Park and the Hollywood team: he gets to ensure that the new ‘Oldboy’ won’t be butchered (so much), and everyone else gets the credit for ‘bringing’ one of the biggest names in world cinema to Hollywood. It probably wouldn’t happen…but he can’t be any worse than Justin Lin (really?).

Uma Thurman's performance in 'Kill Bill' inspired many.

To go even lefter in the left-field, why not just hire Sanjay Gupta? He’s quite familiar with the storyline; after all, his film ‘Zinda’ has constantly been accused of totally and utterly ripping off the ‘Oldboy’ story without paying for any remake rights. Apparently, it caused enough of a stir for Show East, the film’s producers, to look into possible legal proceedings (which, according to Gupta, is “bullsh*t.“) Though he denied the lawsuit, for the life of me I couldn’t find any quote, interview or bit of information online that categorically denies ‘Zinda’ as a blatant rip-off. The closest I got was this: “The press goes after me, saying Zinda was inspired by Oldboy… never mind, the media has made me what I am.”

Ultimately, I think we could be in for an interesting film. Yes, it will be different (it has to be; not all of the elements can be stomached by a large American audience, I think), but at the same time, there will certainly be elements of the film, in terms of style, that will make its way. The single-take fight scene, for example, might make an appearance. I think that is not necessarily a bad thing, and I may be the only one doing so. Truth be told, I think they’re in a lose-lose situation: even if they come up with a kick-ass movie, there will be a sizeable minority/majority who won’t admit that is the case.

But let’s not pretend that it’s all a one-way traffic here. After all, it’s not as if Oldboy is doesn’t get any inspiration from Hollywood at all. I mean…look at the soundtrack listing.

I wonder how much they paid to use these titles…

Fikri thinks that Spielberg and Smith would have had less hassle had they bought the remake rights to ‘Zinda’ instead. Might be cheaper, too. 🙂

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