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Fans of the original Korean film mostly cringed at the idea of an American remake. Adaptations of foreign films are usually hit or miss, mostly the latter. But with recent successes by iconic American directors like Martin Scorsese (The Departed) and David Fincher (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), the idea of an American version of Oldboy directed by a contemporary auteur like Spike Lee seemed promising.

Too bad there was never anything uniquely American or Spike about this movie–aspects that carried Scorsese’s re-envisioning of Infernal Affairs. If it weren’t one of the selling points of the film, you may not have even known who directed it. It’s especially disappointing to fans who have come to expect stylistic choices from the director. Instead, we got this weird, misunderstood cultural mimicry. He didn’t even call it A Spike Lee Joint.

Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, and Sharlto Copley started off as interesting choices as the film’s key players. But in Lee’s hands, they seemed miscast. Brolin never exuded the desperation that Choi Min-sik so deftly captured in the original. And Copley, though a unique talent, had “The Stranger” coming off more like a villain from Batman, the 60’s television version.

But nothing was misused more than the city itself.

Oldboy was shot in New Orleans, something else you would never suspect from watching this movie. In Lee’s strongest films (Do The Right ThingHe Got Game, even the more recent Inside Man), the city takes on a life of its own, becoming an integral part of the story. Why Lee didn’t play up the mystique of New Orleans is equal parts mystery and missed opportunity.

Spike Lee should definitely get a nod for shooting there, but he makes no use of a city that was once a cradle of American civilization. He instead opts for a generic amalgam of Asian cultural exoticism. In particular, the all too trite “dragon lady” that serves as Sharlto Copley’s bodyguard. Even the Chinese dumplings are also somehow less effective in his version.

Lee’s choices touch on a misappropriation of Asian-ness, because none of these essentially inconsequential details seem to be motivated by anything other than a desire to make it look unique, by making it Asian. He never takes it to Tarantino extremes, but you end up wishing he did, and committed to one or the other. This was bad miming of a story in which the original director simply had a better grasp of the material.

Lee’s Oldboy is too serious, it comes off hokey and desperately over-the-top. Park knew the absurdity of his premise and tempered it with absurdist humor. Lee failed to capture more nuanced moments that were unique to a culturally Korean film such as the infamous hallway fight scene with the hammer, and the treatment of the actual twist the film is predicated on. SPOILER: Let’s just say in America, the fuck I’m gonna do with a hammer? And in Korea, incestuous love is a soap opera trope.

If you’ve seen Park Chan-wook’s original Oldboy, you don’t need to see this one. If you haven’t, watch the Korean version first, then refer to the sentence before this one.

Words by Ren Hsieh

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  • Ren Hsieh

    Let me cut Spike some slack though. When asked in interviews about why this was not A Spike Lee Joint, he could only reply “it’s a tough business.” In fact, his typical response was “tough business” to any question about why this movie didn’t seem much like a Spike film.

    So while he’s not off the hook for some of the eye-rolling Asian bits, I’m gonna give him the benefit of the doubt and say this wasn’t really his vision either.