My experience with the original OldBoy was very intense. That's not unusual - the movie's violence is unsettling and brutal, and furthermore it's narrative culminates in a shocking revelation, so most people find watching Oldboy to be an extreme experience. However, my interaction with Oldboy wasn’t intense because the movie contains so much hammer-swining savagery, it’s because the movie led me to a deeper understanding of cinema. Specifically, it really opened up my understanding of how much cultural context I was missing when I watched non-American movies.
There’s a scene in the Korean version of OldBoy where a man eats a live squid whole. My initial response was pretty sensible: I found watching a set of still twitching tentacles disappear into a human mouth to be viscerally upsetting. However, the more I thought about that scene, the more I wondered about how that scene played out in Korea. I grew up in the landlocked middle of America, so the only sea creatures I regularly ate growing up were whatever the hell "fish" goes into fish sticks. As a result, I think I would have been uncomfortable watching someone put an entire squid in their mouth even if it had been dead - but that can't be true of your average Korean, who probably thinks that eating squid is a lot more normal than I do. That scene was clearly meant to be shocking, but I slowly realized that the fact that I wasn’t Korean was adding another level of weirdness to the equation.
Perhaps that revelation doesn't sound that impressive. After all, I'm sure you already knew about cultural relativism. Then again so did I, but I'm not talking about an abstract understanding of a theory, I'm talking about a lightning bolt moment where I began to understand how to apply that theory in practice. That squid scene was just one of many provocative scenes in Oldboy, and after I second guessed it I began to second guess the rest. It became much harder for me to separate the scenes that I found shocking because they were legitimately shocking from the scenes that were shocking because I didn't quite get them, and all of a sudden I was making an active attempt to overrule my initial primal disapproval and to be more open to the whole Oldboy experience. There are a lot of movies that could have taught me how to appreciate being challenged, but for whatever reason, Oldboy is the movie that sticks out in my mind as the one that taught me the most.
So let’s just say that the American remake had a bit of a legacy to live up to.
Now, to be fair, I didn’t expect Spike Lee’s remake to hit me as hard as the original did. I’m well aware of how rare it is to have such a powerful experience with a movie, so I went in with fairly reasonable expectations: I wanted to see something enjoyable, and if something earth-shattering happened, well, all the better. Unfortunately, the cynics who hate all remakes were right in this case: translating this film into English completely ruined it.
From a plot standpoint both movies are the same: a man is kidnapped, thrown into a hotel room and kept prisoner for years and years with no explanation for why he is being punished. Our tortured protagonist is released one day without warning and he immediately sets out to figure out who did this to him and why. It’s an intriguing but implausible story which is part existential metaphor and part ridiculous thriller. In the Korean version it's a lot easier to emphasize the existential metaphor part because the film is tapping into a different society’s ethical code which I don’t completely understand; there’s a gray area that encourages being forgiving. In the American version, however, the ridiculous thriller parts come to the fore a lot more – I know America well enough to know that this story isn’t tapping into our national subconscious, it’s just taking a juicy gimmick and repurposing it for a quick buck.
The biggest example of this difference comes in the scene where the antagonist justifies his decision to go through the trouble of locking our protagonist up for decades. His explanation doesn’t make enough sense to justify the entire over-the-top plot, but because it’s rooted in an ancient Korean honor code it at least symbolically resonates in a Korean context. However, his logic doesn’t translate to America’s moral code at all. Americans don’t plan elaborate and imaginative revenges; we’ve always been more fond of shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later vigilantes. In the Korean version his excessive planning just emphasizes how serious he was about avenging his damaged honor, but in the American version his decision to spend millions of dollars and a big chunk of his life enacting his revenge instead of just killing his nemesis makes him seem like the Riddler, who could never commit a crime simply when he could do it in a very complicatedly. (For the record, the Riddler might be my least favorite villain of all time.)
At the end of the day, there are a lot of reasons why the American version doesn’t live up to the original Oldboy. (Another one I have yet to mention: I think it’s a lot harder to notice plot loopholes when some part of your brain is occupied trying to read subtitles, so this might be a story that's better read than seen.) However, there’s no real point in harping on all of them. This was just an ill-conceived project from the get-go – it’s story was never going to translate well outside of it’s original context. But I will give it this: at least it didn’t make me watch another live squid get eaten. I mean, sure, that scene was important for my intellectual growth – but Jesus Christ what I wouldn't give to be able to un-watch that.
Winner: The Cat