Spike Lee's 'Oldboy' is Grotesque, Incredible, Faithful Adaptation That Will Make You Sick
At most press days, the "holding room" for writers (the place we wait until we're called to interview whatever actor or director) has a variety of edible offerings: breakfast items, bottled water, always coffee. In September, at the Los Angeles press day for Spike Lee's Oldboy , their was only one thing being served: Dumplings. Open each hot plate covering and underneath was another variety of the Asian stuffed dish. If you've seen the original 2003 Park Chan-wook flick, you realize the awesome significance of serving dumplings. But if you haven't, don't worry, I won't reveal their twisted meaning, nor will I spoil the film's gargantuan twist.
This Thanksgiving weekend welcomes Katniss Everdeen back into the arena, animated turkeys, a man who unknowingly fathered an excess of children, a new animated Disney flick, and one very dark tale of revenge. While Oldboy doesn't seem to fit in with the usual holiday weekend fare, it sort of makes sense: After watching the film, you will be eternally thankful not to have a life (I'm going to assume here) no where near as f*cked up as any of the characters in Oldboy. And a tip: This is, for very specific reasons, not a film you should see with your family. Trust me.
Oldboy centers around advertising executive Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) who is a big ol' mess: A drunk, a divorcee, an absent father. After passing out on one fateful drunken night, he wakes up in a makeshift hotel room, which he soon realizes is actually a cell, one that will hold him captive for the next twenty years. This and that happens, and after unsuccessfully trying to kill himself, and unsuccessfully trying to tunnel his way out of the room, he is inexplicably released. On a mission to seek revenge on the man that captured him, it becomes clear the past two decades were only the beginning of Joe's torture.
The 2003 original shocked audiences with its extreme and visceral house of unending horrors. Like George R. R. Martin will never spare your favorite GOT character from having her throat slit, Oldboy doesn't promise any happy endings, instead, delivers scenes that will stick with you long after the credits end. For one, Josh Brolin taking on a mass of armed men with nothing but his primal rage and a hammer. Or a scene where Brolin's character ties a man to a table, uses a Sharpie to sketch a dotted line across his neck, and takes an Exacto-knife to the markings.
The extreme violence, Asian influence, and ability to thrust you into the ickiest places of hell for two hours straight, reminds me of another 2013 flick, Only God Forgives. But where Only God Forgives fails, Oldboy Succeeds, offering us flawed but human characters we can sink our psyches into.
One such character is Marie Sebastian (Elizabeth Olsen), a social worker who takes an odd interest in rehabilitating Joe after he's released back into the world. While there are some fun moments between the two (her teaching him how to use an iPhone and the all-powerful Google), it's hard to believe why any social worker has such a strong interest in risking her life, and the lives of those around her, to help the dangerous and ambiguous Doucett. But the treatment of maternal Sebastian contrasts the other women in the film: None of whom, except for perhaps Joe's daughter (who he sees briefly on his television set), are fully-humanized characters. While it seems to be secondary to the film's theme of revenge, it's clear the treatment of women in Oldboy is likely to prompt a discourse. The sidekick to our villain is a buxom, ass-kicking Asian who is adorned in little more than a see-through skirt ( an archetype we have come to known as the "fighting fuck toy"). In Oldboy, there is not a single female character whose existence isn't deeply rooted in sex.
Some of the original film's most iconic scenes, like the protagonist eating an entire live octopus in a single bite, had to be cut — due to the fact that octopuses aren't as readily available for consumption, nor as common to ingest, in America. And while some reviews of the film have been harsh, I can't help but appreciate that we, as Americans, tried, and in many ways succeeded, in creating a piece of art that is both distracting and thoughtprovoking.
After viewing Oldboy, I felt vile and a little naseaus. But because of a well executed third act, ripe with chilling flash-backs and laying final pieces of the puzzle, I would have been disappointed if my emotions didn't come full circle in this way. Yes, I wanted to scream and gag and throw up a little bit, but still, isn't why we go the movies? To feel something?
Watch an extended featurette for Oldboy below:
Images: 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks