Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Originality and The Remake Factory

The image above expresses how some of us felt upon hearing of the proposed Spielberg remake of Park Chan-wook's Oldboy (2003). Many breathed a sigh of relief as this remake seemed to be resting for good in development hell, perhaps this modern masterpiece would remain untarnished by a generally unwanted rehash. However, it seems Spike Lee has agreed to take this challenge on, and what a challenge it is. Oldboy was one of the most original and exciting cinematic experiences of its decade, it has since acquired admiration and love from cinema fans around the world. It also played a big part in introducing many of us to the wonders of South Korean cinema, a country that still produces some of the most interesting cinema in the world.


Can Spike Lee's version offer anything that the original hasn't already delighted us with? Another Korean masterpiece from 2003, Kim Jee-woon's A Tale of Two Sisters, was already remade as the American The Uninvited (2009). The general consensus among fans of the original being that this was a complete waste of time that not only failed to add anything new but screwed up everything that made the original so special. Many other recent and popular movies throughout Asia have gone through the remake grinder in Hollywood, and more often than not they have left the admirers of the originals unimpressed. Of course its not only Asian cinema that Hollywood looks to for inspiration, the last few years has seen Hollywood cannibalise its own much loved films from the 80s and 90s (even more recent fare in the case of the new spider-man film).

Do all of these remakes, re-imaginings and rehashes serve any purpose other than monetary? Is it even possible to be original any more anyway? For me its a question of motives and whether or not something can be improved upon. It may be true that thematically only a few stories exist and originality can only be found in the stylistic choices made to convey themes handed down from so many generations ago. Yet every year I see interesting film-makers rearranging these principal story lines and finding new and exciting ways to tell them. Sure, true originality may have died a quick death many years ago, but sometimes the greatness of a piece of art comes from the way one of these old concepts can be retold.

The case of Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood(1957) is a good example I think. The story of Macbeth had been retold on stage countless times before cinema even existed, yet before Kurosawa tackled it I don't believe any of the previous screen versions of the story could have been classed as definitive. In the medium of film there was still a need for the retelling of this story. After Throne of Blood I don't believe I personally needed another version as for me it expressed Shakespeare's ideas perfectly. Yet I am open to anyone attempting to outdo Kurosawa, despite them obviously being doomed to fail. I don't believe however that the motives behind re-filming Macbeth would be similar to those behind re-filming a Park Chan-wook film. The theme of vengeance in storytelling is of course as old as storytelling itself, yet Chan-wook created a work that expressed this theme in a very unique way. Chan-wook's personal signature can be seen in all the choices he made regarding lighting, sound, dialogue, narrative, mise-en-scene, framing and all the other details that go into creating a film.

The only artistic motive worth mentioning when re-doing someone else's work is to replace the initial artistic signature with your own, after all Oldboy itself is a work taken from an existing manga. In regards to Macbeth I believe this is valid, the play has been in the public consciousness for many years. I find it interesting when someone with their own specific style chooses to redo a work of this nature. However, I don't agree that Oldboy can be seen in the same way. I'm not confident that the people involved in this remake genuinely believe they can improve or add anything to the film. Rather I see this turning out in a similar way to the A Nightmare On Elm Street remake of 2010, in that the film-makers will simply lift the general iconography and narrative of the piece without adding anything of themselves to it, thus creating a hollow imitation.

Sure it may not be possible to create a truly original story anymore, but originality can lay in the telling, surely this is more of an exciting prospect in the films we choose to watch, rather than the emptiness of artistically devoid reproduction. Always remember what Godard said “It's not where you take things from-its where you take them to” (quoting Jarmusch quoting Godard seems appropriate here). I hope that if the Oldboy remake does go ahead that Spike keeps this in mind.

1 comment:

  1. Well put. Interesting essay. But now I'm going to remake it for my blog :p