Monday, December 2, 2013

It Is The Octopus That Eats Desperate Men

Much like its tortured protagonist and his journey, it could be said the American remake of the 2003 South Korean revenge epic OLDBOY was doomed from its initiation. While many were dismayed but not surprised when talk first surfaced of an English-language adaption of Chan-wook Park's breakout hit, it was likely a curious moment for those same fans when it was announced that it would be directed by longtime firebrand director Spike Lee. Thus, the already skeptical climate this project would have received under normal circumstances by being a remake became a downright minefield of bad press due to the controversial nature of its artistic captain - some of it rather overblown (the process of finding a name actor to co-star with Josh Brolin, the initial lack of a major studio attachment), some of it quite detrimental (artist Juan Luis Garcia calling out the producers' outright theft of his unpaid advertising prototypes and Lee's curt reply of indifference, likely due to his own displeasure with the producers' editing demands, leading to his removal of his longstanding "Joint" designation and well-known 40 Acres & A Mule logo branding). Its release on the Thanksgiving holiday carried a de facto albatross on its neck by opening on only 583 screens nationwide (compared to 1516 for the family drama BLACK NATIVITY, 2572 for the Jason Statham vehicle HOMEFRONT, and 3742 for Disney's FROZEN), resulting in a total opening gross estimate of just over $1 million, and for being the final release for distributor FilmDistrict, whose management and company apparatus are to be fused into rival distributor Focus Features. In short, almost all observers basically declared this film a failure before it even had its first public screenings this past Tuesday evening.

This write-off on the film, figurative and literal, upsets me not just in principle, but in specific to the merits of the finished work. Let me clearly state upfront that Park's adaptation of the otherwise lesser-known late '90's graphic novel is still the better film: its changes to the manga's storyline, its fevered pace of pursuit, its operatic levels of Roger Ebert wrote in his four-star review, "OLDBOY is a powerful film not because of what it depicts, but because of the depths of the human heart which it strips bare." However, and get your torches and pitchforks ready, I feel this new reinterpretation credited to screenwriter Mark Protosevich is the more interesting tale, even though it does not succeed as well as its predecessor. The majority of reviews that have surfaced for Lee's remake essentially carry the same argument for dismissal, saying that for all purposes, it's a note for note copy of the original. Well, to use the parlance of the jazz music that Lee has long championed, it's the notes between the notes you really need to pay attention to in this film.

Need I say we will be dealing in absolute spoilers for both versions?

What initially put me off while watching the new version was the rather extreme unlikeability of Brolin's protagonist Joe Doucett compared to the careless but otherwise nonthreatening air of Choi Min-sik as Oh Dae-su in the original. Both are alcoholics who behave irresponsibly in public and neglect their young daughters on their birthdays, but Dae-su is just a hapless dope, while Doucett is a raging asshole who gets drunk on the job, sexually harasses his assistant, and screams at his estranged wife. As such, the viewer is almost perversely glad to see Doucett get mysteriously imprisoned and isolated from society while they're shocked at the otherwise random jailing of Dae-su. Moreover, when Doucett is freed after 20 years (he spends an extra 5 years in captivity versus the 15 years Dae-su received, probably an appropriate douchenozzle bonus tax), while he has made positive changes like kicking alcohol, getting in shape, and acknowledging the pain he's caused his daughter, he still often behaves like the entitled jerk that he was before his mysterious imprisonment, while Dae-su, just as violent and driven, has a more sympathetic air during his quest. So I can understand if audiences don't feel as invested in his journey, or take any kind of excitement from his numerous battles with the hired hands that stand in the way of his discovery of the truth; it almost seems as if Lee himself doesn't like him either, leading many to suspect it's his passive-agressive way of declaring disinterest in the material.

However, once we finally meet the antagonist, Adrian Pryce (played by Sharlto Copley), I began to get a better inkling of what Lee was really interested in exploring by agreeing to helm this project. Much like his equivalent Lee Woo-jin (played by Yoo Ji-tae) in the original, Pryce seems to have limitless wealth, and is ready to offer a huge amount of it, along with exoneration for the murder of Doucett's wife previously blamed on him, and most importantly, his own suicide, if Doucett can tell him why he caged him for two decades. In both films, it is revealed that a thoughtless incident of youthful voyeurism and slut-shaming by each protagonist led to the death of the antagonist's sister and his desire for revenge. In Park's original, both boys were in high school, and Dae-su is unaware that Woo-jin and his sister were engaged in an incestuous relationship, or that she committed suicide soon after. In Lee's version, both boys (along with another friend, a character in the original manga but omitted from Park's film) are in a much more elite prep school, and this time Doucett unknowingly witnesses Pryce's sister having sex with their father, a moneyed alumnus. It is also revealed the father molested Pryce as well, and after the family relocates to Sweden in the wake of Doucett's rumormongering, the patriarch commits murder-suicide on the entire household, with Pryce as sole survivor. Of all these horrifying revelations, what is the most striking is that as he describes these circumstances, Pryce almost calmly accepts his father's abuse of himself and his sister as normal and acceptable due to the power and respect he commanded by his wealth. Thus, where previously, Woo-jin seeks revenge on Dae-su out of misplaced emotions for his sister, blaming him for the loss of his true love, Pryce, now living under an alias in the wake of his father's rampage, blames Doucett for the loss of his family name and the influence it had carried. And that was where it all clicked for me.

This adaptation of OLDBOY is not meant to be so much a tragedy about the quest for revenge, but a bitter jeremiad about the ingrained structure of white privilege. It's no accident that Doucett, during his captivity, is rankled at seeing the mocking grin of a black concierge on the sarcastic "hotel service" poster in his cell (which comes to life in a hallucination played by the director's brother Cinque Lee), or that the discovery phase reveals his captors to be almost all minorities (led by Samuel L. Jackson) who are ultimately pawns working in the service of an even more powerful white man in Pryce; these are direct confrontations to his pre-captivity image of himself and the world. Moreover, what little he can glean about the world during his 20 years out of it comes from television, and that's no way to have any kind of realistic education about the reality outside. When he's freed from his cell, he's left inside an archaic steamer trunk in an open park, like the artifact from another time that he both metaphorically and literally is. It's quite telling that Doucett drops a quip about THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, and not, say, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION; he doesn't see himself as an innocent man imprisoned, but as an aristocrat dethroned. Even the title gains a different meaning - rather than suggesting the aging of the protagonist in captivity as it did in its original incarnation, "Oldboy" now summons up notions of "the Old Boys Club," entrenched millionaires cackling like Jim Backus and saying things like "Have another martini, old boy!" And, in the icy sociopathy of Pryce, the incestuous nature of dynastic wealth is carried to the harshest possibility. Meanwhile, the two most sympathetic white characters in the film are Chuckie, the former prep school friend of Doucett who has fallen lower on the class ladder but seems much happier with his life, and Marie, a nurse specifically devoted to working with the underprivileged.

Not that this is a completely humorless story, though how much you laugh depends on your own mordant sensibilities. The ongoing references to Doucett's disconnect from modern progress - learning the internet, searching for a Yellow Pages - are effective not just as a tension-breaking aspect of his captivity, but also within the film's theme of affluent men who live in such a bubble they don't know the world has changed around them. While Doucett's surgical flaying of Chaney's neck for information is most gross and horrifying, I must admit I began to imagine this sequence as some sort of subconscious revenge fantasy on actor Jackson by director Lee in regards to the very public fracas over Quentin Tarantino that led to their longtime rift after multiple film collaborations, and chuckled to myself. ("THAT'S for telling Quentin it's okay to use the n-word in his movies! And THAT'S for you saying the n-word all those times in his movies!") And when Pryce reveals that even the television programs Doucett was able to watch in captivity on the ancient TV with the '70's "clicker" remote were often curated or even flat-out faked, my mind was instantly grateful for getting an answer to my wonky question of "How did they get around the analog-to-digital TV transition of 2009?"

A very effective change, in my opinion, is the elimination of post-hypnotic triggering that was a significant element in Park's film, for though it was very effective in bolstering the classical allusions of a hero and heroine unaware of their manipulation or their fate in that film, in this outing, it would have played like a convenient excuse, because Lee and Protosevich insist on Doucett taking responsibility for his bad choices pre-imprisonment, so it is only right that the all-too-predictable manner in which an Alpha male like him would solve his dilemma should create his ultimate downfall. The way in which Pryce has manipulated the lives of Doucett and Marie make hyponsis unnecessary - he has already planted the seeds by depriving one of human touch or kindness, and reinforcing a combination Florence Nightingale/daddy dependence in the other. For those who complain that how would Pryce know that they would fulfill the needs of his master plan, well that's easy: simple human nature. The impulse to help a rattled stranger with severe injuries, a quest for justice, trauma from unexplained attacks. And, of course, having enough money that if the scenario isn't playing as speedily as you would like, contriving some other details in your favor. (Fascinating that, for a story that is often remembered for a man devouring an octopus, few notice that it is the tentacles of a billionaire that, in effect, devours that man.) More important, what previously offered Doucett any sense of advantage over Pryce or his family, whom he didn't even realize existed during his brief interaction with them, were the choices he made, be it to tease and expose their daughter, or to piss away his oppotunities by his alcoholism, or his casual unappreciation of his own family. And Pryce wants to drive home what another ruthless billionaire once opined, that "most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they're capable of anything." Taking advantage of the fact that Doucett has lost 20 years of his life, but he still thinks that he can throw enough punches or dollars at the situation to get to the truth, Pryce lays out a series of moments where he could have done something differently, but chose not to. He could have taken the money that was left in the wallet and fled town, but instead he chased the girl with the yellow parasol and met Marie. He could have called the police on Chaney's bizarre prison/hotel when he found it, but instead he went on a hammer rampage. And he could have politely rebuffed Marie's advances in that hotel room, but instead he gave into his base impulses. As another movie about the framing of a guilty man observed, "Hell is the time you should have walked, but you didn't." Doucett has been manipulated by a man deranged, but he cannot take solace in being forced into bad choices under hypnosis like Dae-su; he made them clean and sober.

And the last major change this movie features from its Korean predecessor that, for me, makes it more interesting (if, keep in mind, not necessarily better), is its resolution. Park's OLDBOY, after the last heartbreaking revelation and the suicide of his enemy, leaves Dae-su self-amputating his tongue and seeking the same hypnotist who induced his fateful triggers to help suppress the memories of the experience, with a reunion between himself and young Mi-do leaving ambiguity as to whether the maneuver was effective. In Lee's telling, after his enemy's death, Doucett uses the significant fortune promised to him by Pryce to pay Cheney to allow him to return to his previous captivity, along with a financial provision for Marie, who will be spared the truth of their connection, but will never see him again. In the wake of everything he has learned about Pryce and about himself, Doucett has determined that he has no place in this society or in the life of Marie, and chooses to spend the remainder of his days isolated from it all, in the hope that things will get better by his absence. In effect, in contrast to Pryce, whose very name suggested all could be bought and controlled, Doucett is finally living in the peaceful gentility his name origin suggests. I can't say if this means that Lee's final statement on rich old white men is to spread the wealth among those who need it (working class, charities, etc) and then get the hell out of the way, but in the case of this one man, he has finally done one deed that, as director, Lee does respect and admire, and believe will finally bring him redemption after a lifetime of near unforgivable acts.

Spike Lee's OLDBOY does not and will never trump, transcend, or escape the shadow of Chan-wook Park's OLDBOY in the manner that, say, John Huston's THE MALTESE FALCON supplanted Roy Del Ruth's earlier production. However, as a stand-alone movie, as a different reading of a familiar story, and as a unit (if not a full-on "joint") of Lee's large body of work, it's a compelling film with something to say, even if for now, nobody wants to listen. I hope it doesn't take 20 years for it to find a hospitable audience.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting take on the movie. You are the only other person I know to have seen it in the iniitial and brief run.
    My review was short and focused on trying to see the @#@!!!! thing: