In 2003 Chan-wook Park released his second in the “vengeance trilogy” Oldboy to overall positive reviews and it became a cult favorite as well as an almost instant classic film and Spike Lee opted to remake the film in 2013 with an end result that is a letdown to say the least. As the film is due for release on Blu-ray March 4 this year, it seems appropriate to take a look at both films and see why Lee’s vision doesn’t really work and why Park’s satisfies all the parts that the new film cannot reach. Being kind, it can be said that in terms of casting; Lee hit pay dirt. In this respect he matches Park’s cast very well…
With Oldboy (Oldeuboi) about to get the “Hollywood” re-make treatment I decided it was time to talk about what I thought about the original film. Directed by Chan-wook Park as part two of his ‘Vengeance Trilogy‘ (the first being Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and the last being Sympathy for Lady Vengeance).
Oldboy is based on the Japanese manga written by Nobuaki Minegishi and Garon Tsuchiya. It stars Min-sik Choi (Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, The Quiet Family), Hye-jeong Kang (Three… Extremes, Battle Ground 625) and Ji-tae Yu (Into the Mirror, Lady Vengeance) as the three main protagonists.
At the beginning of the film Oh Dae-su (Min-sik Choi) is in a police station. He has been arrested for being drunk and disorderly. He is still drunk. In the first few minutes of the film Oh Dae-su is angry, funny, forlorn, indignant and showing off the angel wings he has bought his daughter. We can see that despite his drunken state Oh Dae-Su is the Korean “Every-man” who loves to talk, have fun and loves his family.
After he is released from the police station, he stops to call his wife and tell her he is on his way home. As his wife answers the phone, Oh Dae-Su is rendered unconscious and wakes up in a hotel room. This hotel room will be his home and prison for the next fifteen years.
Oh Dae-Su’s only contact with the outside world is the television in his room. He learns by watching the television that his wife has been murdered (he is the main suspect) and that his daughter has been given to foster parents. At first Oh Dae-Su begs to the unseen person who delivers his meals to him through a slot in the door. He then starts hallucinating and attempts suicide.
He attempts to keep track of time by marking scratches on the wall. He also starts ‘shadow boxing’ and punching his wall to toughen his fists. He starts digging a hole in the wall to escape.
Oh Dae-Su is completely reliant on the television, It is his friend, teacher and lover; at one point he masturbates to the young women he sees on the television. Watching him in his room, we can see that his sanity has been stretched to it’s limits.
Just as Oh Dae-su is about to escape, he is knocked out with gas. He awakens on a roof in a huge steamer trunk. He has been given a mobile phone (cell phone) a new suit and some money. He is now desperate to find out who imprisoned him for fifteen years and why. His ultimate goal is revenge.
The first thing Oh Dae-Su does when he gets off the roof is to enter a sushi resturant. He tells the sushi chef, Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang) that he wants to eat something alive. She serves him live octopus. Immdiately after eating the octopus Oh Dae-Su passes out. Mi-do takes him to her apartment to look after him.
When he awakens, Oh Dae-Su tells Mi-do his story and she decides to help him. In one of the funniest scenes in the film, Oh Dae-Su, who is desperate for sex breaks into the bathroom while Mi-do is on the toilet. She had just previously told him not to ‘try anything’ and she backs this up by beating Oh Dae-su until he gives up.
Later she explains that even though she has been among people she too has been alone. The two wind up becoming lovers and Oh Dae-Su tells her to pray for a younger lover next time since he is so mucholder than she is.
The two then play detective to figure out where Oh Dae-Su was kept captive. As he was fed Chinese dumplings for fifteen years from a Blue Dragon restaurant they go around to every Blue Dragon where Oh Dae-Su samples the dumplings. Once he finds the dumplings he figures out where he was kept prisoner. He tricks his way in and tortures his old warden until he tell him who locked him up.
Oh Dae-Su then has to fight his way out of the hotel against an army of thugs. Armed only with a hammer and his fists he makes his way out of the hotel and onto the street.
Now that he knows who his captor was, Woo-jin Lee (Ji-tae Yu), he finds that Lee wants him to figure out why he was incarcerated. Oh Dae-Su learns that he and his captor went to the same school and that Lee was having incestuous sex with his own sister. Oh Dae-Su sees them at it and tells his best friend, just as he (Oh Dae-Su) is leaving the school for good, with the warning that he should not tell anyone. His best friend of course tells everyone and Lee’s sister kills herself.
I’ve spent a lot of time setting up the main plot of the film. But I haven’t talked about what I think of as the film’s “set pieces.” It is the set pieces that have made this film’s popularity grow and made an impression on everyone who has seen it.
Set piece number one is that long violent, and punishing, corridor fight scene. It is a true show-stopper. It was done in one take, over a three day time span. You can tell that the actors and stuntmen are exhausted. Some of the “half-hearted” punches and kicks that are clear misses are due to the tiredness of the players instead of poor choreography.
Set piece number two is the scene where Oh Dae-Su cuts off his tongue. At the end of the film, he does this in order to pay his “debt” to Lee for inadvertently causing Lee’s sister to kill her self. He is also doing it in a last ditch attempt to save Mi-do from finding out that he, Oh Dae-Su is her father.
The whole theme of the film is two-fold, vengence (obviously) and incest. It really comes as no surprise that this won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and that Quentin Tarantino lavished so much praise on the film.
Oldboy is a Korean crowd pleaser. It helped open the door for Korean films to the rest of the world. In my opinion Chan-wook Park’s other films in his vengeance trilogy were better. Oldboy for all it’s colour and complex plot, was a bit choppy at the end. His other two films Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Lady Vengeance were tighter and more neatly tied up at the end of each respective film.
Still Oldboy has shot to the top of the list of ‘must see’ Korean films and rightfully so. It is as good a place as any to start in regards to Korean cinema and certainly will not disappoint the novice Korean film fan.
I love Korean cinema and adore Min-sik Choi as an actor. I would have to say that as of this moment, I think South Korea outshines the rest of the world with their film making. I am probably a little prejudicial in this claim as I think that Korea has two of the best directors in the world right now in Chan-wook Park and Jee-woon Kim.
I will of course watch the re-make. I am a huge fan of Spike Lee’s work and I think that Josh Brolin is one of the best actors in the business. It will be interesting to see what Mr Lee does with his version of the story.
If I had to give it a rating, I’d have to say a 3.5 out of 4 stars. Watch it and you’ll see why Chan-wook Park is the film critic’s darling.
- I Saw the Devil (2010): A Clash of Wills (mikesfilmtalk.com)
- Crying Fist (2005): Down But Not Out (mikesfilmtalk.com)
- Oldboy (2003) Review (oldgamereviewer.com)
- Sharlto Copley Cast in ‘Open Grave,’ Confirmed For Spike Lee’s ‘Oldboy’ (deadline.com)
- The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008): A Kimchi Western (mikesfilmtalk.com)
- Josh Brolin Asked Oldboy Director For Permission To Remake It (perezhilton.com)
- Spike Lee Get’s His OLDBOY Villain And It’s Sharlto Copley! (thepeoplesmovies.com)
- Memorable ‘Long Single Take’ Scene of Films (filmrecord.wordpress.com)
Starring Byung-hun Lee ( A Bittersweet Life, The Good, the Bad, the Weird, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) and Min-sik Choi (The Quiet Family, Oldboy, Crying Fist, Lady Vengeance) and directed by Jee-woon Kim (The Quiet Family, A Tale of Two Sisters, A Bittersweet Life, The Good, the Bad, the Weird), I Saw the Devil is devilishly hard to watch.
The film opens with a young girl, Joo-yeon, who is travelling by car through a snow covered countryside. Her car tyre goes flat and while she is waiting for the breakdown service to arrive, she calls her fiance Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee), who works for the Korean Secret Service. While she is talking to Kim a man comes up, Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi) and offers to change her tyre for her.
Joo-yeon refuses and the man leaves only to return with a hammer to smash her window in with. He strikes her with the hammer and takes her unconscious body away. Kim is understandably upset that his fiancée is in danger. Kyung-chul in the meantime has raped and murdered Joo-yeon. Afterwards he cuts her body up and scatters the pieces around the countryside.
Joo-yeon’s father is a policeman, a squad leader and he is present when the police find Joo-yeon’s head. Kim Soo-yeon uses a suspect list that Joo-yeon’s father has to find the murderer. He vows to get revenge for his fiancée’s death.
Jee-woon Kim, has made a powerful and disturbing film. I Saw the Devil could be described as a modern morality tale. Kim Soo-hyeon’s cold determination to catch his fiancée’s killer, has him brutally questioning the suspects to narrow down his search for the killer. When he finally discovers that it is Kyung-chul, he begins a series of violent and gory retribution against him.
Kyung-chul though is a different animal from the usual sexual predator. He is actually a predator, full stop. Kim’s brutal torturing of Kyung-chul just makes things worse. Kim finds out, to his horror, that Kyung-chul is a twisted type A personality, a ‘right-man’ who will not stop until he has either won or died.
When Kyung-chul finds out who has been tracking him and injuring him repeatedly, he vows his own revenge on Kim Soo-yeon. A deadly cat and mouse game between the two ensues, with Kim having to sink to the same level of evil as Kyung-chul.
The film was excruciating to watch. The rape scenes were uncomfortable and horrible. The scenes of retribution against Min-sik’s character, although satisfying, were equally horrible to watch. Although we feel the rage that Kim feels and that the actions he takes are justified. We cannot help but be saddened by the toll it takes him and on everyone involved.
The police are frustrated and angry, Kim begins to lose his grip on normalcy and everyone peripherally involved gets caught up in the action.
This is the latest offering from Jee-woon Kim, one of the best directors in South Korea. If you are a Jee-woon fan you will not want to miss this film. If you are not aware of Jee-woon Kim’s work, it is a good introduction to his prowess as a director.
Written and directed by Seung-wan Ryoo (Arahan, No Blood No Tears) and starring Seung-beom Ryu (Arahan, No Blood No Tears) and Min-sik Choi (Oldboy, The Quiet Family, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, I Saw The Devil) Crying Fist [Jumeogi unda] was Ryoo’s fourth film that utilised the talent of his brother and was a break in direction for both him and his brother. Ryu was so ‘beefed-up’ for his role in the film that he is almost unrecognisable.
The ‘Reader’s Digest‘ version of the plot is as follows:
Tae-shik Kang (Min-sik Choi) won the Olympic Silver Medal for Boxing when he was younger. Kang has fallen on hard times. His wife has left him, he is broke, jobless and in serious debt. He has turned himself into a human ‘punching bag’ and bills himself as a stress reliever.
Sang-Hwan Yu (Seung-beom Ryu) is a teenage juvenile delinquent. He has an anger management problem and has no self discipline. His frequent brushes with the police end with his being put in prison. Once inside, his natural proclivity for fighting works for him as he joins the boxing team. He learns that boxing may just change his life.
An amateur boxing title is up for grabs. The winner not only receives a title but he also wins a nice sum of cash. Both men decide to go for the title. Tae-shik Kang goes for the title in a last ditch attempt to clear his debts and turn his life around. Sang-Hwan Yu goes for the title to give himself a new start in life, he is desperate to ‘go straight’ and not return to prison.
The film follows the journeys of both men. We see the depth of Kang’s misery and hopelessness. In his eyes he is a loser, someone who was once proud and respected. Watching him set up his area in town squares and main streets is heartbreaking.
Kang is constantly reminded of how much he has lost and how much he owes. The amateur title seems almost too good to be true. He realises that this could be a second chance and he starts training for it.
Yu is an angry young man. Stubborn and wild he looks to have no real future, apart from prison. When he warily starts boxing in prison, he soon realises that he is good at it. Once he is out of prison, he trains for his chance at the title. If he wins, he will have respectability, money, and a purpose in life.
The film shows us both men’s story by cutting back and forth between the two. The director manages to get us on both men’s side. We feel their despair, anger, helplessness, frustration and finally hope. While rooting for each man to succeed, we are uncomfortable in the knowledge that only one of them can win.
It can be a little frustrating to watch. Ryoo does such a good job in connecting us with the two ultimately opposing characters that we remain torn over which one to root for. The characters are so well written and performed that we constantly shift our allegiance and this shifting of sympathy gets harder as the film progresses.
Both men endure gruelling punishment in the ring. Each one continues to win until,ultimately, they must face each other. The fights in this film are choreographed brilliantly. Each fight actually appears so realistic we wince and start to react to the fight sequences as if they were real.
I would highly recommend this film to anyone. If you have not watched Asian cinema before, this would be an excellent introduction. Min-sik Choi and Seung-beom Ryu are craftsmen of the highest order. I have never seen either actor in a film where they failed to deliver. Seung-beom Ryoo goes from strength to strength as a director and this film is an excellent example of his work.
This film is no Rocky it is too realistic and gritty. It also grabs you and reels you in, by the end of the film you will be practically exhausted from all the “side changing” you will go through. Definitely a must see and one that you’ll need two bags of popcorn for. Crying Fist is a cult favourite and it deserves to be.
I have just read that Spike Lee is re-making Oldboy. To say I’m angy and dismayed is the understatement of the century. I am not too surprised as there is apparently some sort of loophole in the Korean film system where the owners/creators of a Korean film have no rights. Anyone can take their film lock, stock and barrel and remake it. This is the second time (that I’m aware of) where Hollywood has decided to take advantage of this copyright loophole.
The first time was with the brilliant Tale Of Two Sisters, Jee-woon Kim’s masterpiece. This film was a skilful blend of supernatural horror and psychological thriller. It was butchered beyond all recognition by Hollywood in the re-make titled The Uninvited. It beggars belief that Hollywood can see the merit of the original film and then re-make it so badly that it is nigh-on unrecognisable upon completion.
Now Hollywood has it’s sights firmly set on Oldboy. Oldboy was part of Chan-wook Park’s ”vengeance” trilogy. The first of which was Sympathy for Mr Vengeance. The last of the trilogy was Lady Vengeance. Oldboy was sandwiched firmly in the middle. That Park is a master craftsman is undeniable. When you watch these films you feel overwhelmed by the imagery and the intricacy of the plots. Of course Min-sik Choi features in two of the films. He is the star of Oldboy, the villain in Lady Vengeance and is suitably different in each role.
I dearly love all three films, although Sympathy for Mr Vengeance always depresses me no end when I watch it. The point is all three films have so much in common. I’m not talking about plot here. I’m talking about the amount of care that Park takes in the crafting of each film. In Oldboy for example, look at the clothes the three main protagonists wear. Each of the characters wear certain colours and patterns that tell you, who they are and how they fit into the film. The set designs have been developed the same way. I could go on for hours about the amount of effort that Asian film makers put into their films, but I think it would start to sound a bit like ranting.
I think that Asian cinema has some of the most talented directors in the world at the moment. Asian directors usually write the screen plays of the films they direct and in some cases produce them as well. If ever the phrase of ”director as auteur” applied to anyone, it applies to Asian directors. For Hollywood to re-make the work of these masters without asking permission, or (most disturbingly) without conferring with them on the process of the re-make itself is criminal. At the very least it is a little nuts. The very fact that the original films were so successful almost mandates an invitation for original creators to be involved.
There is no denying that Hollywood is on the “Remake Train.” They aren’t just remaking World Cinema’s great films, they’re remaking much loved Hollywood films as well. True Grit was released earlier this year. And a list of further re-makes that are upcoming is long and upsetting. One of the latest is The Wild Bunch which is under going talks to be directed by Tony Scott. It is disturbing to think that the well of talent is so dry in Hollywood that they’ve had to resort to remaking other peoples classic/iconic films to turn a profit.
I think it’s safe to say that Hollywood is no longer the “Dream Factory,” they are now the“Remake Factory.”
- ‘Oldboy’ director backing remake, says Josh Brolin (digitalspy.co.uk)
- Spike Lee Get’s His OLDBOY Villain And It’s Sharlto Copley! (thepeoplesmovies.com)
- Josh Brolin Talks OLDBOY Remake; Says Film Has Chan-wook Park’s Blessing and Includes Hammerfight and Octopus Scenes (collider.com)