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11 July 2013 @ 05:39 pm
Spike Lee's Oldboy  
I just watched the trailer for Spike Lee's remake of Oldboy, the South Korean film directed by Park Chan-wook.

From what I can tell from the trailer the remake looks, at the very least, like it directly reproduced some of the more visually memorable shots (e.g. the man in the suitcase; the hammer scene). The main differences appear to be the change in all the characters' races (no one is Asian in the remake), the food featured (not Korean food), and obviously everyone is speaking English.

I had a conversation with a few friends (who were all Asian American) about this remake and we all had various reactions. I was mildly annoyed at the thought that Spike Lee had copied some of Park Chan-wook's actual frames. Kind of like how Gus Van Sant did that awful shot by shot remake of Psycho. The difference was that the world knows who originally directed Psycho. But there will be plenty of people, I fear, who will believe that it was Lee who created some of these truly gorgeous shots. However, my larger bone of contention with this film occurred when one of my friends commented that he could understand why White people might not be able to connect with the original and thus a remake might be necessarily.

Here's my opinion about the original Oldboy: I enjoyed this movie precisely because it wasn't a heavily cultural movie. You didn't need to have any sort of working knowledge about Korean lifestyles, customs, or even specific laws. It was just a very simple human story about a man who was seeking revenge and desperately trying to piece together the remnants of his old life. I'd say that's a pretty general story that anyone can connect to whether you be a man, woman, or any myriad of ethnic backgrounds. And I'm the first to point out that stylistically Korean films could do with better editors to trim down the run times (the average Korean film is almost always well over 2 hours). But Oldboy was unique (especially for back then) in that it was economical and fast-paced. I watched it and felt like it was almost made with the idea that it would be seen by an international audience. So it bothers me that someone would think that by the very fact that the original had Asian faces playing out the story, a White audience would not be able to relate. Because that was his argument. It felt like an internalization of the justification for whitewashing in media and no matter how I tried to see my friend's point of view of that being okay, I just couldn't.

It reminded me a little bit of a debate that fired up on Tumblr (yes, I know most of these are ridiculous but go with me on this one) where someone who watched the pilot episode for Hannibal posted how they hated the race changes they did for with Jack Crawford (played by Laurence Fishburne) and the inclusion of Beverly Katz (played by Korean-American actress Hetienne Park) as it felt like a "race agenda" and seeing the POC distracted this person from enjoying the show. Tumblr sort of blew up and yes, a lot of people just wrote angry, all caps replies about how the person was racist. But the most salient reply I found pointed out that the fact that this poster being SO taken aback by the sight of POC on his or her TV screen said something about the state of the media and its representation of POC. They also challenged the original poster to consider that if he/she was so upset by seeing someone who was not of their race on TV, imagine how viewers who are POC feel 90% of the time when watching mainstream shows that mostly feature only White actors and characters. The United States is has a huge population of diversity. It's about time the media reflects this.

But going back to Oldboy. I want to be fair and will actually watch this movie before I make my final call on it. I actually think I'm still more upset by my friend's somewhat blase assumption that all it takes alienate an entire race of people from enjoying a pretty soul-wrenching film is the fact that all the main characters are played by Asians. Am I just being naive here when I think that in this day and age, we're a little better than this? Or we should have faith that we're a little better than this? Granted, the media is still working through its portrayal of characters of color and stereotypes, but from my personal perspective characters like Joan Watson and Beverly Katz give me hope that we're moving in a good direction.

While these debates on race these days energizes me to a certain point, I also am starting to feel like there's something wrong or overly sensitive about me getting so deeply annoyed by the somewhat lax attitude when it comes to whitewashing. I'm pretty sure my radar for this is up these days because my dissertation focuses on Asians in America and I feel like I've been reading endless articles and studies that have pointed to that subtle, casual form of race-based dismissal that drives me crazy. So maybe I just need to calm down a little. I'm not saying definitively that Lee's remake is whitewashing but if the remake contributes nothing new other than a different set of actors playing the same story, I do have to ask what the point of the remake is. To spare an audience from having to read subtitles and look at Asian faces? But who knows? Perhaps Spike Lee will hit on something that will make me look back on this post and chuckle that I ever got so fired up.