The problem with remaking masterpieces: OldBoy

Some movies have a way of sticking in the minds of their viewers; from The Exorcist in the early 70’s to Ghost in the 90’s, movies can stay with viewers for a lifetime. But it is always a true masterpiece of filmography that has a way of entwining its way into the soul of a viewer, and such a movie for me is 2003’s OldBoy.

Cover of Volume.1 of the manga OldBoy from which the original movie was adapted.

Loosely based on a manga of the same name, OldBoy from the time of its release quickly became a firm favourite not only amongst fans of Asian cinema but general movie goers also. It was indeed such a well-made and critically acclaimed film that in 2004 it won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as high praise from the President of the Jury, director Quentin Tarantino. Often voted one of the best movies ever made, OldBoy was once described as “A powerful film not because of what it depicts, but because of the depths of the human heart which it strips bare” by film critic Roger Ebert.

If you were to outline the plot of the movie this statement as a whole rings true: Oh Dae-Su, a somewhat average man, is kidnapped and imprisoned in a cell without explanation on the eve of his young daughter’s  birthday.  Exactly 15 years later he is released and given money, a mobile phone and clothes, yet no reason as to why he was imprisoned. As he works to explain his imprisonment and get his revenge on his kidnapper, he soon finds that there is a greater plan behind his imprisonment and led down a path of great pain and suffering, whilst falling in love with the innocent Mi-Do. Simple enough right? Wrong!

You see the hard-hitting and gripping story viewers were treated to in the movie was an entirely different one from what was depicted in the manga. From the personalities of the characters, the period of imprisonment and the reasons given for it, changes of all kinds were made. But to me it’s these changes that made OldBoy the film that it was. People who might have read the manga were on a level viewing field as those who had not heard of it before.  They were treated to an entirely new story which would grip and shock them in all the right ways without ever having to feel that they knew what was bound to come along next. It was shocking and extreme but mostly a flyaway success. So it comes to me to beg the question, why has Hollywood decided to take this movie (like others previously) and re-make it?

Discussions of remaking the film began in early 2008. Both DreamWorks and Universal were in works to secure the rights, with Steven Spielberg as director and Mark Protosevich writing the script. Right away the press exploded with the news of this possible collaboration and talk of stars who wanted to star in it; with Will Smith top of the list. However, like with most plans, nothing went smoothly and in 2009 plans for the remake went dead, with all but Protosevich dropping out of discussions after the comic’s publisher launched a lawsuit against the Korean film’s producers for giving the film rights to Spielberg without their permission. Fans could breathe a sigh of relief…

That was until 2011.

During this time Mandate Pictures released a press statement saying that a remake of the film was being taken on by them with Spike Lee taking over as director and the screenplay being written by Protosevich. The cast is definitely one that will make fans take notice: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen and Samuel L. Jackson being amongst a few. So why do so many still lack interest towards the film?

With that in mind, we go back to my initial question: why has Hollywood decided to remake the movie? One reason that is easy to pick up on is the profitable aspects of the movie. Having seen the success the initial success the movie made with Asian cinema goers upon its release, it is easy to see why DreamWorks would want to remake it for a western audience to attempt repeat the same profitable success. We have to remember also that such profit outlasted the movie’s time in the cinema with the film being released by Tartan Asia Extreme several times in different editions, including a single-disc edition, featuring the film and a small amount of special features.

Scene from the original movie, one that could well be missed out in the Hollywood remake.

Another reason which could be key to the reasoning behind this remake is problems with cultural identity. The western audience simply may not be able to relate to the Korean version of the movie, therefore the idea of making the film relatable to a wider audience is appealing to film companies. Are we not as humans more able to empathise with characters and stories we can relate to? This also ties in with the language barrier. It is well-known that the majority of film fans would much rather miss a film, no matter how well reviewed or popular it is, if it were to have subtitles. Most people simply prefer to be able to watch a movie without having to read throughout it. But this to me has been one of the most disappointing things about this project, discovering that, as a fan of foreign movies. I am not part of the majority but of the minority.

However this could well be the remake’s downfall. Yes the Korean film was different from the initial manga but that is what made the movie so good. They did not try to replace it but changed the entire outline, a move that could well have been a hindrance but instead made it stand out amongst other films.  Another problem that could arise with this Hollywood remake is the very fact that it is a remake. Over the past decade Hollywood seems to have lost its originality and spark when it comes to creating memorable movies for the viewing public, often losing money on big investments or simply producing ‘one hit wonders’. But with remakes, and especially popular ones, they at least have the certainty of being on to a sure thing. Who could possibly fail to make a profit with an idea that has already been so profitable and popular?

New poster for Spike Lee’s Hollywood remake of OldBoy.

But they could well fail to hit the right mark with fans of the original. Outcry came after it was announced that plans would go ahead with the movie again and this has yet to die down, even after the release of a first trailer of the movie and movie posters (both in the last week).  Whilst some have argued that the movie trailer appears to show an entirely new concept of the movie and brings hope that it may not be a complete lost cause, others have been less than forgiving, commenting that the trailer cheapens the movie and the tone of the posting being ‘too surreal’ and not fitting to the image of OldBoy. An image that set the tone of the entire film, which is something the recent poster fails to do.

Whatever it comes down to there is bound to be countless issues within the next few months leading up to the Hollywood version of OldBoy. Whether you are a fan not willing to give the remake a chance or someone who has not yet had the chance to experience what in my opinion is clearly an unbeatable adaption of a wonderful manga, the movie producers seem to have gotten one thing correct. The movie will be on the lips and in the minds of many a film fan up until its October release.

So what are your views towards the remake of OldBoy; do you look forward to seeing how Hollywood has adapted the storyline or do you wish they would learn when to leave a good thing alone? Let us know.

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Co-founder and Editor at Beyond Hallyu
Lover of Korean hip-hop and indie music...and Unicorns.
  • Jibril Ikharo

    Even those who say they’re against Hollywood remakes would have to say that the trailer makes them at least a little curious to see the finished film. Besides, considering that the Korean film is itself an adaption, the whole ‘remakes are a sign of a lack of creativity’ argument seems invalid.

    I can understand that people think the original film should be respected, but remakes can be respectable works of art in their own right. What I find the most saddening out of all this isn’t that Hollywood is so fond of remakes but people’s unwillingness to watch subtitled movies.