Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Oldboy, Oldboy, Oldboy (and Zinda)

I do believe that the fairest way to review a movie is probably to let it stand on its own - if it's a remake or an adaptation, try to put those prior (or subsequent) versions out of your mind when watching the new one. Just judge how well it works as a film, with maybe a few comments giving context if you're a fan of the prior versions.

Or, alternately, given a new movie in theaters that is both an adaptation and a remake, I could binge on all three in short succession and talk about how four different teams told (roughly) the same story. In the case of Oldboy, that would be the original manga by Garon Tsuchiya & Nobuaki Minegishi, the South Korean film directed by Park Chan-wook, an unauthorized Hindi-language version directed by Sanjay Gupta (Zinda), and a new film directed by Spike Lee.

A lot of Oldboy

And, just for fun, I'll review them in the order of release, writing each up before watching the next, seeing how the story evolves. Admittedly, I've already seen the Park Chan-wook version, but it's been since the original American release.

Be aware: There will be discussion of the ends, clearly marked.

Oldboy (original manga)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Read 28-29 November 2013 in various places

Pretty much every week, I buy more comics than I can read; the individual issues with their ongoing storylines that cross over from title to title generally get finished, but manga, original graphic novels, and other works with a spine can accumulate. That's what happened with Oldboy; I purchased the eight volumes as Dark Horse put them out in 2006-2007 and they just piled up, ready for an excuse to binge-read.

That's not precisely a bad thing; it goes quickly enough and is enough of a good story, well-told that when I got to the end of one volume, I'd want the next right away, and I was glad I didn't have to wait two months for it. It reminded me of Naoki Urasawa's 20th Century Boys in that regard. Of course, part of the quickness of the read was that each 20-page chapter had a double-page spread and some material meant to catch the guy reading it in the original serialized form (it ran as a feature in Weekly Manga Action for 78 weeks).

The story itself is about a man, Shinichi Goto, who was locked up in a private prison for ten years. As expected, he wants to find out why anybody would do this to him - he had no enemies that he knew about- and with nothing to do but exercise and watch television, he's worked himself into a specimin who can take anything thrown at him. Which is fine with his mysterious nemesis, "Dojima", as long as it happens under his terms.

As one starts reading Oldboy, it does not seem particularly surprising that it would become a film; writer Garon Tsuchiya and artist Nobuaki Minegishi occasionally throw in sound effects that seem more at home in the movies than sequential art, and the flashback structure similarly seems cinematic, introduced with what feels like camera movement and a slight change in the shading rather than, say, caption boxes or a different style of panel border. Minegishi's art in general is fairly strong; he draws expressive faces that take advantage of being drawn rather than photographed just enough that things never feel stiff, and places the characters into a detailed world without things ever getting too busy. Sometimes things can get a little off-model - Goto's distinctive chin sometimes shrinks just a little too much from certain angles - but never to the point where it's confusing for more than a second. His art style is somewhat generic beyond a fondness for big noses, but he tells a story without being showy about it as well as anybody.

Tsuchiya knows the tricks of writing this sort of serialized story, mixing red herrings and cliffhangers that will be undone in the next chapter up with new elements that will genuinely change the direction of the story. And it is a good story, albeit one that suffers from some of the usual seinen manga excesses. Goto's tragedies have, as often seems to be the case, forged him into a hyper-competent paragon of masculinity; he is not only able to defeat the top Japanese pugilist based on having shadow-boxed while watching matches on television during his incarceration despite never fighting before (as he tells the reader during some enjoyably hard-boiled narration, the sport has grown disappointing during the past ten years), but he is able to to screw the information he needs out of a woman. Even before some of the loopier plot twists kick in, it's no surprise that within hours of his release, pretty young waitress Eri is practically dragging him back to his place to rid her of that annoying virginity.

And that's before the somewhat loopy machinations of the second half kick in!


To be fair, Tsuchiya introduces hypnosis to the story early, and I suppose that if one is going to use it as a plot device, there's no point in going halfway. In some ways, it seems like a bit of a cheat;making the whole duel between Goto and "Dojima" - by now revealed as elementary school classmate Takaaki Kakinuma - little more than a game solitaire for Kakinuma. It robs Goto, Eri, and former teacher Yukio Kusama of much of their agency, and what's the point of a story like this if the whole thing winds up being just a puppet show?

The idea that emerges, though, is that we are all puppets to a certain degree, pulled away from our truest, best selves by emotions and compulsions that we cannot control. Goto, we learn, feared losing control to darker impulses from an early age, while Kakinuma feared that acknowledging any potential for friendship would make him weak, and so set out to destroy the boy who had once been nice to him. His masterstroke, as he sees it, is to make Goto and Eri prisoners of their own minds, awaiting whatever post-hypnotic suggestion might be lurking underneath. They may think that they have beat him, but as the epilogue shows, they can never be sure if their happiness is real or just the set-up for a greater fall. It's a sort of fatalism that many will feel without the need for it to be deliberately implanted.


Put it together, and what do you have? A thriller with a neat hook, fine execution, and a finale that embraces the concept's absurdity to leave the reader with an interesting philosophical question to ponder. It's not surprising that someone saw a movie in it.

Oldboy (2003)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 December 2013 in Jay's Living Room (binging, Blu-ray)

I reviewed this one for eFilmCritic back when it first hit the US, and even though I have (hopefully) become a better writer and more perceptive critic since then, I do agree with the basics of what I wrote there, so I'll just let the link stand and add some more.

One interesting thing I found watching it anew was that, apparently, some of the translation had changed between the theatrical release and the Blu-ray included in Tartan Palisades's "Vengence Trilogy" box set. Most curiously, protagonist Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) now says that his name means "taking things a day at a time" rather than "easy to to get along with". I can certainly see how one thing can be an idiom for both, but it's a very pointed change; instead of being an ironic comment on what a jerk Dae-su is at the start, it foreshadows what it will take to survive in his cell, and, maybe, on the outside (although, interestingly, both of those meanings might better refer to Shinichi Goto more than Oh Dae-su).

Another thing I was struck by while watching it was that while I tend to file Park Chan-wook away as a guy who makes stylish thrillers, springing clever twists on the audience amid excellent craft, he actually makes crazy movies. Oldboy is frantic from scene one, and some of the imagery that pops up on screen (like the ants - how could I forget the ants?) is actually over-the-top bizarre. Park certainly pays major attention to detail - I suspect every detail down to things like the choice of wallpaper in a given room is as meticulously chosen here as in his latest film (obsessively-polished English-language debut Stoker), there's the constant feeling that this thing could go off the rails into bug-nuts territory at any moment.

That's a big change from Oldboy the manga; while artist Nobuaki Minegishi mostly distinguished himself as a detailed draftsman and clear storyteller, the ordinary detail he presented is in stark contrast to the luridstyle and unusual angles Park and his collaborators go in for. Similarly, where writer Garon Tsuchiya emphasized the male-fantasy nature of Goto's methodical search for his enemy - and said enemy's rather formal opposition - Park and his co-writers plunge Oh Dae-su into madness and chaos straight away.

They also streamline the story quite a bit; without the demands of serial publication, the movie can tell the story without having little cliffhangers and false starts, and an important character introduced midway through the manga is entirely absent here. Park also makes the reason Dae-su was imprisoned much more grounded compared to the relative abstraction Tsuchiya went with, and the full scope of the revenge visited on him much more horrible. As the movie reaches the end, the audience is much more likely to react to the last-act revelations in a visceral way.


The character of Lee Soo-ah (Yoon Jin-seo) is entirely new, as is the whole plot of her sleeping with Oh Dae-su as a teenager, having a hysterical pregnancy as a result, and then being the subject of rumors that she and brother Woo-jin were having an incestuous affair before committing suicide, eventually leading to Woo-jin having Dae-su imprisoned while he carried out his plan of fixing Dae-su and his own daughter up. It's a brilliant story, shockingly emotional and horrifying on a gut level compared to the intellectual and philosophical motive in the manga. One can almost imaging Park coming up with this part of the plan and stumbling upon the Oldboy manga when trying to figure out how to make it work, and then grafting the two ideas together.

It does lead to Park pouring a lot into the last few scenes. Just as the audience has time to admire the scope and cruelty of Woo-jin's plan, Park is moving on to the next thing, having Choi Min-sik chew a great deal of scenery as Oh Dae-su promised to be Woo-jin's dog and does everything he can to convince him not to tell his daughter/lover Mido what has happened, climaxing in his cutting off his own tongue, the means by which this foul gossip was spread. It's arguably all a bit much, and depending on the mood I'm in when I consider it, those scenes are either two plots trying to upstage each other or Park realizing that they must be equally over-the-top for the incest to not overpower the rumor-mongering that caused it. Once he's committed to this story, there's no way to go but excess.

It's the last scene, though, that really seals what an incredible inversion of the original manga this story is. For all the darkness in Tsuchiya's story, it is a fundamentally heroic tale: Goto works to be a good an honorable person in the face of the darkness he finds within himself. He ultimately triumphs, and while there is still the threat of evil rising up to harm him even after he has defeated his enemy, he and Eri attempt to live a good life in spite of that fear.

At the end of the film, though, is as cynical as it can get. What initially appears to be Dae-su's attempt to erase his sin - having the hypnotist remove the memory of having slept with his daughter - merely frees him to be able to repeat it without guilt. It's interesting that the hypnotist purges the memory by having Dae-su imagine "the monster" walking away, as it is arguably the person left behind who is the actual monster, for he is the one that will continue the forbidden relationship, and has made the arrangements to make it possible. Dae-su was never the good man Shinichi Goto was, but you can argue that this is the lowest, co-opting the very idea of innocence so that he can have that which he is ashamed to want. Where Shinichi Goto lives honorably and has nightmares, Oh Dae-su does wrong and sleeps well.



* ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 December 2013 in Jay's Living Room (binging, DVD)

Zinda is an unauthorized Hindi-language remake that follows the first Oldboy film pretty darn closely, though inevitably without the surges of inspiration that Park Chan-wook brought to the story, so that even when writer/director Sanjay Gupta does the same thing, it's obviously but a pale copy. Apparently, you can't sue over this in India, which is a shame, because this sort of rip-off appears to be Gupta's bread and butter.

Part of this movie's reason for existing is to water the story down; Indian audiences probably would not have gone for some of the nastier bits of Park's screenplay. Heck, early on, it looks like Gupta is going to transform Zinda into an utterly conventional revenge story, although he does eventually push things into twisted territory. That beginning is rough sledding in a lot of ways, as the interplay among Sanjay Dutt (the "Oh Dae-su/Goto" role of Bala Roy), Celina Jaitly (his wife Nisha), and Mahesh Manjrekar (Bala's weirdly-open-about-his-attraction-to-Nisha friend Joy Fernandes) is stilted and awkward. Things start looking up when Gupta and company decide that they will make use of the story's mean streak, especially once John Abraham pops up and brings unabashed nastiness to the part of the villain. Gupta also has no trouble with violence, adding power drills and katanas to the hammers and fisticuffs already in place.

The most obvious problem, though, is that while Gupta may be okay with throwing as much blood as the Indian censors will allow on screen, he's really got no style. He tries to replicate the "Oh Dae-su, with a hammer, against a veritable army in a corridor" fight, and it's terrible, static camerawork of a fight where each thug fights Bala in sequence for no good reason, with an obvious blooper that shows how fake the props are left in. It's also as blue-filtered as the rest of the movie, and make no mistake - you will not see a bluer movie that this; from at least the moment when Bala is imprisoned to the end, the only time the filter comes off is for a love scene, which makes me wonder if cinematographer Sanjay F. Gupta (apparently a different guy) was too conservative to shoot that. It's downright distracting, making the movie more obviously the work of someone who wants to be seen as edgy and different rather than a legitimate boundary-pusher like Park.

For all that Zinda is hackishly put together, though, its worst sin is probably being forgettable. It's Oldboy without the artistry or the truly shocking moments, and forced to fit a Bollywood format that it is ill-suited for (there might not be actual musical numbers,but there are some annoying prominent full songs on the soundtrack). To be fair, those who haven't seen the original - much less done so that week - can get a charge out of the concept and some of the bloody violence, but it can't help but feel watered down.


How watered down? Well, hypnosis and incest are both off the table. Abraham's Rohit Chopra certainly reveals a twisted endgame - a plan to sell Bala's daughter into sexual slavery at the same age at which Bala's lies about Rohit's sister Reema gave her a shameful reputation - but the full horror of the prior versions of Oldboy came not just from what the villain does at the end, but how thoroughly controlling a monster he is. Here, Lara Dutta's Eri/Mido stand-in, cab driver Jenny Singh, is just someone Bala meets on release and a convenient hostage for Rohit, there's no manipulation that not only leads to the gut-punch that ends both previous versions, but underscores the claim Rohit explicitly makes early in this one, that he has not been released, but transferred, and his life is still being controlled by his jailer.

Plus, the movie wimps out at the end. Where the manga had an ultimate victory for the villain always lurking in the shadows in the epilogue, and the Korean film had him relent only after Oh Dae-su had abased himself horrifically, this one just has false defeats followed by "what, you didn't think we were really going to have the kid raped, did you?" Where the previous versions had the villains off themselves because they had done their worst and what they had done would linger this one just has him fall off a building in a standard case of not being willing to allow the hero to save his life, only to be revealed as not having the viciousness to do the truly monstrous thing he'd planned.

I don't say this as a "darker == better" type; I want Bala to rescue his daughter, to prove that his love for this little girl he's never met is even stronger than the hate and anger that had propelled him through the rest of the movie. But this finale isn't an earned rescue or a piece of what's come before. It's backing away from the abyss entirely because the filmmaker is timid, and that's not exciting at all.


As an aside: It's kind of hilarious to hear Rohit boasting that what he's planning will be seen by everyone on internet, mobiles, and DVDs, if only because it so closely paralleled the huge sales pitch Eros Entertainment put on the front of the not-exactly-great DVD I spent $3.30 on at Amazon. Aside from how much I wonder how often Eros gets people coming to their site looking for some other sort of entertainment entirely (or how often Bollywood fans accidentally find something spicier than masala), it's a weird sales pitch for the company and its routes for delivering "content", rather than the actual music/songs/TV itself.

Oldboy (2013, USA)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 December 2013 in Regal Fenway 31 (first-run, DCP)

My full review for this one is at eFilmCritic; and that closing paragraph about Spike Lee having a director's cut fills me with some trepidation - I don't necessarily want to update this thing in a few months because there's a fifth version of this story hanging around. That's doubly true since it seems like there's not much that needs to be added - more of Joe being a dick is unnecessary, and nobody else has a background that really needs fleshing out (or which could be fleshed out without giving too much away). There are a couple of plot bits that seem jumped over too quickly - Joe, Marie, and Chucky seem to be looking at Adrian Pryce before they've realized they should be looking at Adrian Pryce, for one; I spent some time wondering if Joe's ex-wife was the "Donna" mentioned in the high-school flashbacks, as her name is mentioned later there's nothing to connect her to the client's wife Joe makes a stupid pass at in 1993 - but supposedly what's been cut is character-building material.

The credits are a bit odd, too - Mark Protosevich is the sole credited writer in the opening titles, just after "Based Upon the Korean Motion Picture Oldboy". First, is it the usual practice to just credit that by name, as opposed to including the original writers/director? Second, there's no mention of the original manga written by Garon Tsuchiya and drawn by Nobuaki Minegishi. Both groups may be mentioned somewhere in the end credits, but that seems rather unfair beyond just giving human beings credit: While Lee & Protosevich have clearly used the 2003 film as their primary source, they do reach back to the original manga for certain elements: Joe sleeps in the back of Chucky's bar much like Goto did, there's an important part for a former teacher, and while previous adaptations only preserved the villain's former security-forces bodyguard as opposed to the pretty secretary, this one combines the two characters.

In some ways, I kind of wish the filmmakers had drawn more deeply on the source material; for instance, there's no particular reason for the four-day deadline, especially since it requires some unworldly puppet-mastery without the hypnosis used to speed things along in the Japanese and Korean versions. The counter-argument is that the longer Joe has, the less predictable what the players do is, but ...


... Joe and Marie having sex really never seems inevitable here, especially in the time frame given. This may be a result of having seen the Korean version within the week, knowing what's going to happen, and as a result paying more attention to the way Lee, Protosevich, and company set it up than the events as they unfold.

I'm also not hugely fond of Adrian literally going out of his way to kill Chucky in this one. In the Korean and Indian versions, the equivalent character is there to be enraged, and it's still a decision I don't love - the equivalent sequence in the manga has Goto's friend survive because for as much as Dojima is a monster, he's a planner who gets his revenge over time; that he used someone as stage dressing shows how diabolical he is. Granted, the movies feature a villain with powerful, lingering anger, and given the set-up it would make sense if killing Chucky were always a part of his plan. There's no indication that it was, although this is a more impulsive character. Donna is noted as dead as well, although with no evidence to suggest Adrian is responsible.

I do admit that I rather like the ending Protosevich gave this movie. As mentioned above, Oh Dae-su turns himself into an innocent monster in order to stay with Mido, and it's a twist that seems to exist for the purpose of their being a twist, ensuring that he's the same sort of oblivious, selfish man he was when the whole thing started. By choosing to return to his prison, Joe Doucett has developed the ability to feel guilt, choosing willingly to be punished for an offense he committed without knowing it, though I'm guessing this presumed life sentence has little to do with all the aggravated assaults and murders. It retroactively makes the opening scenes of him as a kind of boring creep better: He's gone from a man with no moral compass to having one that, while unconventional, certainly exerts power over him.


Ranking the various versions, the Korean film goes on top and Zinda at the bottom, with the manga much closer to Park's film than the American remake is to the Indian. It's interesting to note just how transformative the Korean version is; both later versions have mostly followed its lead, although there is good material in the manga that is necessarily disposed of. For example, the later versions have no way to use the sweet sequence where Goto meets his former fiancée, and while all versions are about obsession, the theme of being a prisoner of one's own mind fades as one gets further from the source.

What really stood out to me is how, when seen in such quick succession, the various Oldboys point out the trade-offs in adaptation. When adapting the manga in 2003, Park Chan-wook had to make structural changes - things that worked as a graphic serial wouldn't have worked in a film - but he also injected a new idea that made the story more than its gimmick and the finale more visceral versus philosophical. Gupta's and Lee's adaptations, in contrast, were both about making things safer. Sure, Lee put some wacky stuff of his own in there, but the aggregate was about making thins easier for the audience to handle, even if not to the extent that this was the case for Gupta. This progression is a fine example of how the great adaptations, whether from one medium to another or between languages or eras, build on the best parts of what was there before, while the disappointing ones file things down.

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