side by side

The Differences Between Spike Lee’s Oldboy and the Original Oldboy

Photo: Tartan Films; Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/OB Productions, Inc.

Remaking a movie is always tricky, particularly when the original has such a strong following. This weekend, Spike Lee plays the remake game with his version of Oldboy. Based on the cult favorite by director Park Chan-wook, the film follows a man named Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin), who seeks revenge after being kidnapped and imprisoned for twenty years for apparently no reason.

When Chan-wook’s Oldboy hit theaters in 2003, it was praised for its unique structure, its magnificent fight scenes, and its visual flair — making Lee a bold choice to adapt the film for an American audience. The New York–based director is known for his independence and uncompromising vision, which can be a double-edged sword when remaking a violent South Korean flick: While Lee would hopefully prevent the studio from meddling with any major decisions regarding the plot and structure, his independent streak could mess up what Park was going for in the first place.

However, before you start writing an angry blog post or cursing at Spike over Twitter for desecrating a classic film, let’s take a look and see whether he actually honored the source material or hammered it beyond recognition.

Spoilers obviously follow.

The overall story is pretty much the same.
Like Park’s Oldboy, Lee’s version begins with a boozehound businessman looking to buy a birthday present for his young daughter, a mission that ends with him being kidnapped off a rainy street and thrown in jail — albeit, one designed like a dingy hotel room — for no reason. While locked up, he discovers his ex-wife has been murdered, making his daughter an orphan. Stricken with grief, Joe soon turns himself into a one-man revenge machine, working out every day until his sudden release, twenty years later (a small change from the first movie, which has our hero in jail for only fifteen years). At this point, he decides to put his training to good use by hunting down the bastard who detained him. While the journey he takes along the way has its own unique twists and turns, the overall structure doesn’t deviate from the original source. There is still a list of enemies, the use of poison gas, a greasy dumpling scavenger hunt, and the help of a young female acquaintance (played by Elizabeth Olsen).

The backstory is longer (and a little different).
Spike’s adaptation features more backstory at the beginning of the film, so get ready for lots of drunken Josh Brolin antics. The new Oldboy starts with an overweight Brolin aimlessly wandering the city, flipping out at random strangers and harassing colleagues. In the original, we only get to see the lead, Oh Dae-su, briefly going nuts in one location before he gets snatched and shipped off to the Red Roof Inn Prison. However, Joe’s fit of drunkenness is done at several locations — at his office, in a fancy restaurant, in the middle of the street — and goes on much longer than Dae-su’s.

It’s not a shot-for-shot remake.
Lee previously spoke of his desire to create a “re-interpretation” of Park’s film instead of a carbon copy. If you’re familiar with the original, you’re going to see many of the same objects from the Korean version used in Lee’s film. Some will be presented in a similar fashion, such as the doggie door in Joe’s jail cell. Others will be shown in the form of clever Easter eggs, like a giant octopus in a fish tank or a street vendor wearing angel wings. The latter moments will either act as a nice callback to hardcore fans, or infuriate those expecting a better tribute — particularly when it comes to the octopus. In the original, the film’s protagonist, fresh out of jail, orders the slimy creature at a restaurant then eats it alive. Brolin had said the octopus would be making an appearance at some point, but considering the memorable encounter it had in Park’s version, watching the thing only swim around for five seconds makes you wish Lee had done something a little more clever with it. C’mon, Spike, put that thing on a platform and use it in a dolly shot!

The villain does not have a pacemaker you can turn off via remote control.
Homeland may have taken a page out of Park Chan-wook’s book, but Spike Lee definitely did not.

Like Chan-wook’s version, don’t watch this one on a full stomach.
Park’s film spills its fair share of blood. However, that version excels in its implication of graphic scenes: When Dae-su chops off his tongue, you don’t see the scissors actually making the cut; when he decides to tear out his jailer’s teeth with a hammer, you don’t see the act so much as what happens before and after it. That’s not to say Park’s movie isn’t bloody, just that the gore in Lee’s feels more pronounced. For example, the hammer sequence from the original is replaced in the new version with a scene where Joe flays a man’s neck, complete with close-up shots and leftover skin. It’s not as unique as Park’s torture method, but it is certainly brutal, and feels closer to something you might see in one of Eli Roth’s Hostel films. In other words, wait until your Thanksgiving meal is fully digested before you decide to check this movie out.

The single-shot hammer fight is no longer a single shot.
One of the first questions that popped up about Lee’s film was whether he would include the most famous sequence from the original: a hammer fight in a hallway, which was filmed in one take. Unfortunately, the one Lee presents in his Oldboy is a bastardized version of Park’s. Not only does it not happen in one take, it’s missing the same claustrophobic feel that made the first one so special. Not helping matters are the foes Joe is up against, who act like they’re about to rumble in some Off Broadway production of West Side Story, as opposed to the 2003 villains, who actually look like they’re there to do damage.

It’s worth noting that the one-take decision likely wasn’t Spike Lee’s fault. As he hinted at in an interview last week, the studio had a hand in splitting the sequence into several shots (there goes that independence we were talking about). Fingers crossed for Lee’s version being included on the bonus features.

The movie’s twist is identical, but the ending is completely different.
Like the first film, the reason behind Joe’s detainment is the same (and just as twisted), as is the villain’s decision to grant Joe’s revenge fantasy — if he’s able to discover the man’s real name and why he imprisoned him. (Without giving away the entire twist, there are a few minor differences in how this section is presented.) The reward for answering correctly is a signed confession from the captor detailing the murder of Joe’s wife, $20 million in diamonds (that one’s different from Parks’s flick, too), the captor putting a bullet in his own head, and the safety of Joe’s daughter. But that’s where the similarities stop. While the 2003 film ends in the snowy mountaintops, with Dae-su requesting the help of a hypnotist to help cure the terrible mental state he’s in, Lee’s ends on a much more upbeat note — or at least as upbeat as a film that deals in torture and incest could end.

The reaction to this conclusion may be the deciding factor of whether Oldboy fans ultimately enjoy Spike Lee’s version. If not, they’ll just head back home, watch Park Chan-wook’s, and pretend this whole remake business was all just a very bad dream.

What Did Spike Lee’s Oldboy Remake Change?