Saying that the overall reaction to news of Spike Lee directing the Oldboy remake was a bit negative would be quite the understatement. To be fair, though, Hollywood’s plans to release a reworking of Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook’s cult classic revenge thriller (itself, based on a Japanese comic book) was poorly-received by fans from the get-go.
One of the most obvious examples that has already been cited as a counter-argument in favor of the Oldboy remake is Martin Scorsese’s multiple Oscar-winner, The Departed, which was an Americanized take on another cult classic piece of Asian cinema, Infernal Affairs.
Early reports indicate that Lee’s Oldboy will indeed go a route similar to that of The Departed. This revelation isn’t exactly shocking, since producers Roy Lee and Doug Davison worked (or will have worked) on both films, but it at least clears up the matter of the remake’s cultural setting.
Screenwriter Mark Protosevich (I Am Legend, Thor) will reportedly draw inspiration from both the original comic book and Chan-wook’s 2003 Oldboy film for the remake, the script for which is expected to be composed of around 20% brand new narrative material.
Here is how Twitch describes the structure for the Oldboy remake:
“… the goal here is not to create a slavish shot-for-shot remake but to take elements of [Chan-wook's film] combined with elements of the manga and completely re-envision and re-contextualize those to create a specifically American story around the same concepts and themes.”
The Americanization of Oldboy seems like a more reasonable task than, say, the Americanization of Akira, simply because the former’s themes (ex. the destructive cycle of revenge) and examination of the darker aspects of human nature are more universal and less tied to Asian history and culture. Again, it’s a situation fairly similar to The Departed, where screenwriter William Monahan and director Martin Scorsese successfully refashioned the all-too-familiar concept at the heart of Infernal Affairs (institutionalized corruption) within an American context.
While Lee as a filmmaker has long attracted controversy for his approach to the topics of racism and political inequality, some of his most popular works have managed to still deal with those issues – but simply on a more subtextual level (see: 25th Hour, Inside Man, Summer of Sam). Those pictures, in a sense, allowed Lee to have his cake and eat it too, by delivering less polarizing (and more lucrative) works that still touch on many of the topics the director is very passionate about.
That’s all to say: the Oldboy remake could conceivably mesh elements of a dark character study, brutal revenge thriller, and the sort of American social commentary that Lee is quite found of, in an effective manner that allows it to stand on its own. There’s no guarantee that the approach will work, but Lee is arguably more than capable enough of a director to pull it off.
Look to hear more about the Oldboy remake in the near future.