Ordinary Oldboy

Ordinary Oldboy
Josh Brolin (left), the executive bent on revenge on the villain Chaney (Samuel L. Jackson), in Oldboy.

Review Thriller

OLDBOY (R21)

104 minutes/Opens tomorrow/ ***

The story: The loutish, self-destructive advertising executive Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) seems to anger and alienate everyone around him: his boss, his clients, his wife. One night, after a bender, he wakes up in a locked hotel room, with no means of escape. Food arrives through a hole in the door and on the television, he learns that he is wanted for his wife's murder. As the years pass in solitary confinement, his desire for vengeance on the person who has imprisoned and framed him grows.

Do not call this a remake, admonishes director Spike Lee. The Korean version from director Park Chan Wook (2003) has a powerful cult following, but Lee's film is not based on it. Rather, this work, like Park's, is built on the source Japanese manga written by Garon Tsuchiya, first published in 1997.

In other interviews, Lee, himself a maker of film with both cult and mainstream appeal (She's Gotta Have It, 1986; Inside Man, 2006) has also said that its key plot surprises will be new to the many Americans who are famously averse to subtitled films. If that is true, then why not just remake Park's work, one might ask.

Vanity is the reason, of course. Lee is likely bristling at the notion that he might be so gauche as to make a slavish translation, or worse, perform the film equivalent of turning a fiery Asian dish into a bland American McThriller.

Not having read the manga, I cannot say if Lee's adaptation is faithful, but it does share one trait with adult-oriented Japanese comics. It is jaw-droppingly violent, and in one overlong skin-slicing scene in particular, it veers into gore- horror territory, fully justifying its R21 rating.

Bullying an audience into a reaction of disgust is easy, and it is alarming that a director as seasoned as Lee cannot tell the difference between cheap shocks and genuine provocation.

In a nod to the Asian origins of the source material, there are references sprinkled here and there, but they are mostly peripheral and disappointingly fetishised - a sexy female ninja here, a bamboo umbrella with mysterious symbols there.

Brolin is good here, able to summon wells of desperate tears and numb stoicism with equal ease, while Elizabeth Olsen (playing Marie, the woman who aids the released Doucett in his search for answers) is the weaker link, unable to register much on her face beyond baffled pity.

Park's version is often labelled a revenge story, but it is more accurate to call it a tragi-comic, an almost Biblical tale of redemption, with the protagonist as Job, thrust into situations grotesque and, occasionally, surprisingly beautiful.

Lee, on the other hand, interprets the source manga as an American comic book. Brolin's brooding, muscled Doucett recalls the hulking, battling Marvin character in Sin City (2005), and the characters of Adrian Pryce (Sharlto Copley) and Chaney (Samuel L. Jackson) are clearly modelled on comic-book villains.

Lee, however, likes to mix his comic- book camp with street-level realism and the result is a work that never feels as relaxed or enjoyable as it should be.

Much emphasis is placed on the action setpieces, without the same effort put into dialogue. Marie's desire to help Doucett, for example, is explained away with a single line about how she cannot stay away from lost causes.

Expunged of all the lyricism found in Park's version, Lee's stripped-down, business-like reading of the text leaves very little room for interpretation. And when judged at face value, it just becomes ordinary.

johnlui@sph.com.sg


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