Friday, December 13, 2013

2013 in Shit: Oldboy

It's nearly impossible for me to assess Spike Lee's Oldboy remake without obsessively comparing it to Park Chan-wook's original. Not least because I have never seen another film by Lee, basically hate Sharlto Copley, and don't know much of anything about Josh Brolin. Elizabeth Olsen, on the other hand, I kind of adore, exclusively because of her performance in Silent House, which was a wonderful wonderful movie. There isn't a ton to go on, there, though, I suspect (though I could well be very wrong).

So, instead of trying to force myself to view it as its own text, I'll just say that I suspect that this remake might work most effectively in where it speaks to the original's silences; even as the new scenes largely undermine the themes of the original, they have a certain interstitial strength, I think, worth considering, if briefly.

The focus, for instance, on the night leading up to Brolin's imprisonment is a notable absence in Park's film; unlike the focus on Choi's drunk tank antics, Brolin wanders the streets, encounters people, is denied by his friend, and so on. No Joo-hwan is with Oh Dae-su at the payphone; Doucett is alone, having been earlier rebuffed by Chucky. Where Park suggests, Lee enacts; where Park holds the frame for seconds on the floor before feet enter and the camera begins tracking, Lee begins with a face and pans away. Also Olsen is never allowed to hallucinate a giant ant on the subway, which is total bullshit.

Of course I'm straying already, listing differences with an implicit value judgment attached. What is interesting about Brolin's wandering through the streets is not that it isn't as effective as Choi's jump-cutted rant is, but that it was implicit in the original film even as the two don't fit together; even as Lee enacts what Park suggested, there isn't a simple offer to suture the films together to make a coherent narrative whole, a more palatably fleshed out Doucett/Oh for Western Audiences. If the remake speaks to the silences of the original, then it does so on its own narrative terms, even as its insistence on speaking to those silences renders its narrative terms disappointingly incoherent, might be a way to phrase it.

That incoherence is reflected in the tone, to a certain extent; where Oldboy's somewhat arch style made the characterization of Oh make sense even when it was really funny (as in moments where Choi suddenly rushes off in the middle of a conversation, say), Lee's alternation between heady seriousness and campy excess never really pays off, for me at least. And unlike Pain & Gain, this tonal issue never asserts itself strongly enough to become its own aesthetic mode; while the transformation of one of the most harrowing scenes in the original (the moment after the reveal) to high camp in the remake (that FUCKING CRANE SHOT oh my GOD) is kind of fucking inspired, it's also kind of wasted, a shot from a campy Oldboy that I would love to see but this wasn't.

Anyway: I've provided almost no support for my assertion that Lee's Oldboy speaks to the silences in Park's. Part of that is just that I don't really know how to make that argument coherently, or even how compelling of an argument it would end up being. Except that, having rewatched the original for the first time in ages recently, it makes a weird kind of sense; one of the strongest threads in Park's Oldboy is precisely its silences, most obviously in Lee Woo-jin's claim that Oh Dae-su "talks too much" (or was that Copley to Brolin? I can't remember) but also in the use of hypnotism. There's a (very) brief, unresolved suggestion in the original that everything subsequent to Oh's release is a dream or a fantasy, as the fugue sequence with the hypnotist resolves into the coffin, which returns us to the opening shot of the film.

The original Oldboy plays with this uncomfortable coupling of narrative ambiguity and formal grounding a number of times, but never quite so starkly as that moment. On watching it seems that the return to the opening frame is a clear indication of the reality of the situation; in retrospect, the opening scene is consciously stylized in such a way as to suggest its own irreality, and on top of that the self-quotation "proves" nothing whatsoever. And post-hypnotic suggestion is, itself, a sort of fanciful way of rendering the spoken as silence, imbuing certain phrases or tones or actions with a motivating absence.

It seems not quite so weird (if still kind of gross) that Lee would substitute Park's hypnotism for a strictly Freudian Oedipalism, retelling the initial incest as the tale of the father rather than the siblings. Park's Oldboy is, in one sense, structured by Freud's palpable absence, its reliance on that pre-Freudian psychological technique of hypnotism, as in service of his aesthetics as it is, necessarily recalling how that moment has been superseded. If Lee's initial decision to follow Doucett's drunken stumbling rather than his incarceration sets the stage for this incommensurable articulation of absence, then the refiguring of the motivating traumatic incident cements it. It forces the viewer into a position, to consider this new film as a failure on another film's terms, or to attend to the developments of this ones own. Unfortunately I can't quite figure out how to do either, and so.

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