This review contains massive third-act spoilers: I was fairly to moderately pleased with much of Spike Lee‘s Oldboy (FilmDistrict, 11.27), which I saw a couple of weeks ago. It seemed to me a vigorous, well-disciplined, good-enough remake of Park Chan-wook‘s audacious, same-titled original. I realize that I’m expected to hate or at least disapprove of Lee’s version and ask why did he remake it and that no one can touch the original, etc. But it’s not half-bad, really. Josh Brolin shoulders the lead role of Joe Doucett (a nod to original character Oh Dae-su, played by Choi Min-sik) with a fittingly grim, terse, low-key attitude. And the extended warehouse fight sequence (which lasts four or five minutes) is grippingly staged, I thought. And thank God Lee doesn’t go in for tongue-severing, which struck me as completely needless in Chan-wook’s original.
My problem with Lee’s Oldboy is all about the rewriting of the big “surprise” ending, which of course isn’t a surprise to tens of thousands as it’s basically the same used in the ’03 film, which every fan of extreme Asian action cinema is totally up on. I’m nonetheless declaring for the second time that what follows blows the big third-act reveal all to hell.
In both versions Oldboy is partly a revenge film and partly a mystery that asks “why has Doucett/Dae-su been imprisoned for 20/15 years in a motel room?” I was actually engaged by the motel imprisonment as it seemed like a metaphor for 20 years of being an abusive alcoholic, which both characters certainly are in the early stages of both films. The post-motel aftermath, likewise, seemed analogous to the experience of an alcoholic having sworn off booze and accepting his issue and going around to various people he knew as a drunk to straighten things out.
In any event the ending of both films is about atonement and (here comes the revelation) the protagonist’s determination to save his daughter (Kang Hye-jung in the original, Elizabeth Olsen in Lee’s film) from knowing that she has inadvertently had sex with her dad.
In the Korean original this bizarre bonding has been orchestrated by Woo-jin Lee (Yoo Ji-tae) as a way of forcing Dae-su to come to terms with a crime of cruelty that he committed in his youth by having gossiped to his high-school friends about Woo-jin’s incestuous affair with his sister, which goaded her into having an hysterical pregnancy and then committing suicide. In Lee’s film Brolin’s teenaged character (played by Grey Damon) witnesses the father of Sharlto Copley‘s Adrian Pryce (the Woo-Jin Lee character) having a sexual affair with his teenaged daughter, or Pryce’s sister. After Damon gossips about this a scandal explodes. This leads to the father not only committing suicide but shooting his family in the bargain. (Copley’s teenaged self, played by Erik Gersovitz, suffers a wound but escapes death.) The adult Copley, we learn, has orchestrated a sexual connection between Brolin and Olsen so that Brolin will have to swallow the fact that he has committed the same heinous sin that Copley’s father was guilty of.
In the Korean version the finale is half-upbeat. The daughter, Mi-do, never learns the truth and Dae-su has apparently been hypnotized into forgetting his incestuous secret. His daughter embraces him and tells him that she loves him, which brings temporary comfort to Dae-su but perhaps not the permanent kind as the hypnosis may not have completely worked. In Lee’s version Doucett realizes that in order to save Olsen from knowing the truth he has to return to the motel prison and stay there for the rest of his life. A final closeup of Doucett’s face tells us he is serene about having protected Olsen.
What Brolin and Olsen did was inadvertent and clueless and a one-time occurence, and what Copley’s father did was deliberate and prolonged and predatory in the worst way imaginable. Brolin obviously feels badly and torn up about what’s happened, and of course he doesn’t want his daughter to know. So in order to save her from intense confusion and shame and all kinds of screwed-up emotional issues for the rest of her life, he goes back to Samuel L. Jackson (his original motel-room jailer) and says “put me back in the motel room for another 20 years or perhaps for the rest of my life”?
That’s his solution?
How is a single unintentional coupling similar or analogous to Copley’s whacked-out father having knowingly had relations with his daughter on an ongoing basis? Brolin looks at us and half-smiles at the very end. Half-smiles because he’s going to be in a motel room for the rest of his life? He didn’t intend to have sex with his daughter and vice versa. They were both set up. They didn’t know.
Obviously it’s not a good idea for Brolin and Olsen to see each other again for a long time. Perhaps never again. A profoundly creepy thing has occured. No getting around it. But Brolin could move to Vietnam or Thailand or something…right? Or to Eastern Europe? Or Olsen could just take a deep breath and say, “Well, this obviously isn’t cool but we didn’t mean to do this, right? It feels really strange and bad and vaguely diseased, but I don’t think you have to do life imprisonment in a motel room, Dad, in order to atone for being with the wrong person at the wrong time, once. It’s weird and uncomfortable, okay, and we should probably say goodbye for 20 or 30 years but this is not Chinatown. I’m not Evelyn Mulwray Cross and you’re not my monster father, Noah. It’s bad but it’s not the end of the world. We were set up, dad. We were duped. We were played.”
Basically I bought Chan-wook’s ending (except for the tongue-slicing) but not Lee’s.