Some films seem bound to spend eternity in development hell: for a while, it seemed like one of these was going to be the remake of Park Chan-Wook’s mega-successful South Korean film. Now, though, talks of Spike Lee moving forward with his US version are gathering traction, as Josh Brolin and Samuel L Jackson are both reportedly cast – there’s an IMBD page and everything. But why has it taken so long? And why do I have such a personal investment in it?
OldBoy. In many ways, it’s no surprise that a subtitle-averse, ideas-dry Hollywood wanted to remake the movie, which is one of the most successful Korean films ever. It’s perfect remake fodder – both high concept and high action (man kidnapped for 15 years with no explanation, then released and given 5 days to track down his captor, wreaking a trail of very bloody vengeance in the process) and not particularly tied to any place or culture. Even as a subtitled film, it was successful: it won the Grand Prix at Cannes (Quentin Tarantino loved it), and it’s been voted one of the best Asian films ever made. Sure, the film as it stands is very South Korean, but there’s no reason why it can’t be easily transposed to the US.
The main problem, of course, is it really is very, very, very violent. Even by the standards of the ‘Asia Extreme’ cinema of which it is at the vanguard, Oldboy is brutal: it includes at least two scenes of graphic torture, a tongue amputation, sexual deviation (to say more would be to spoil) and perhaps its most infamous scene, when Min-sik Choi, as the film’s newly released protagonist, eats a live squid (which he actually did in real life – no handy SFX here). It’s little wonder the original mooted remake team of Spielberg and Will Smith ended up falling by the wayside. On top of that, it was so widely recognised as a classic, there were understandable fears it would end up eviscerated and ‘dumbed down’ into Hollywood schlock. It’ll be interesting to see, then, with a director of Lee’s calibre at the helm, how much of the original gets lost in translation.
But why the hell do I care? Why have I been following the remake updates with an interest that borders on the slavish? Well, I must admit I have a very personal investment in the original Oldboy, because back in the day when it was released on DVD, I subtitled it. This may sound like nothing to you, but subtitling a film is – or, at least, it used to be back when I did it – an enormously labour intensive job. Working with a translator (obviously, I don’t speak Korean), I had to watch the film scene by scene, adding subtitles that are timed to the exact frame and which have to adhere to dozens of different rules depending on who’s speaking and where they are positioned on or off screen, where the shots change, and the varying style guides that are dictated by the various DVD companies and broadcasters.
It’s a pernickety job, but worthwhile and rewarding, because you really feel you are helping get a director’s vision across to an audience – anyone who has ever sat through a shoddily subtitled film, struggling to try and work out what is going on, will tell you the difference it makes. (A colleague worked on a particular John Woo film and the contrast between the file we received, where subtitles moved too fast to read and, more often than not, were spectacularly mistranslated, and the finished version that ended up on the DVD was so extreme it was like watching two different films).
It’s a process that involves watching and re-watching every single scene time and again in slow motion then at proper speed: to do a film from scratch can take around a week. With Oldboy it was further complicated by the fact that I have a massive dental phobia, so I couldn’t watch the two scenes of dental torture in the film – the translator had to flag them up in the file and get my colleague to come in and do them!
So I watched the film, and then I watched the film, and then I watched the film again. And then, because US DVDs are timed differently, I did the whole process again for the US version. And then, in one of those sod’s law moments, the original file got corrupted, and so I had to do the UK version again from the start. By now, you can imagine, I was very familiar with the film.
But this was one of the best-selling Korean releases ever, so the film itself was only the beginning of it. The boxed set included a whole swathe of extras: several commentaries which (yes!) had to be translated and subtitled, lots of behind the scenes clips, and interviews with the cast and crew. All of which had to be given the same slow, shot-by-shot treatment. By the end of the weeks-long subtitling job, I had seen more squid eating and tongue removal than any human being should ever have to experience, and I was starting to sympathise with the grinding imprisonment of the main character. I still get an eye twitch whenever someone mentions the movie.
For all that, though, I love Oldboy – it’s a stunning film, visually impressive, tense and with an incredible central performance. But also, having slogged my guts out on it, I have a sense of protectiveness that’s admittedly out of all proportion with my connection with it. I desperately want Lee to make a good job of it and do it justice; to perhaps save the squid but leave the spirit intact. Though, at least, I can console myself with one thing: however it turns out, I won’t have to subtitle it.
What do you think? Looking forward to the remake or should they leave well alone? Let me know!
I’ll be back with more Fangirl in a fortnight, but in the meantime feel free to pop over to Body of a Geek Goddess to say hi, or boost my coffers by coughing up a couple of quid for my resolutely squid-free, all tongues intact novel, Dark Dates.