Warning: the following contains SPOILERS for both 2003 and 2013 versions of Oldboy.
2003’s Oldboy was remade in 2013, but the new version made some big changes to the original. The second film in Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy back in 2003, Oldboy is the one most associated with the director’s success. Spike Lee’s Oldboy remake contains several differences, with changes made in a bid to give the film its own identity, but it failed to make the same kind of impact. Even after the Oldboy remake came out in 2013, 2003’s Oldboy continues to inspire modern series and movies. In order to fully answer the question of what’s different in the Oldboy remake, as well as to understand why Spike Lee remade Oldboy, viewers need to know the history behind the Korean thriller.
Both Oldboy films are based on the Japanese manga of the same name. Written by Garon Tsuchiya and illustrated by Nobuaki Minegishi, the Old Boy manga was published by Futabasha magazine between 1996 and 1998 throughout eight volumes. The manga is mostly incredibly similar to the main storylines of both films. In the 2003 film, Oh Dae-su is being tracked by a bug located in the sole of his shoe. In the manga, Shinichi Gotō has the tracking device buried in his back near his right shoulder blade that Eri has to dig out with a knife. Notably, both the original film and the manga predate the long-running Saw franchise and other contemporary movies and series that deeply explore body horror.
Oldboy has even inspired a 2006 Bollywood film called Zinda, which appears to be another Oldboy remake. The plot for Zinda is almost identical to the storyline of Oldboy. However, the rights were never obtained, and Zinda isn’t considered to be an official remake. That leaves Lee’s film as the lone true Oldboy remake, although it also contains a lot of notable differences.
Both films are based on Shinichi Gotō being imprisoned for 10 years in the manga, but the 2003 film increases that time period to 15 years while the 2013 remake doubles it to 20. Additionally, Oh Dae-su is given five days to figure out Lee Woo-jin’s identity to coincide with the death of Lee Soo-ah. Adrian Doyle Pryce only gives Joe 46 hours in Oldboy 2013. Though these changes seem small, they play into where Oldboy stands in Spike Lee’s filmography.
In Oldboy 2003, Oh Dae-su is a troublesome drunk that is arrested for his behavior on his daughter’s fourth birthday. Upon getting released, he makes a phone call to his wife and daughter. He hands the phone to his best friend, No Joo-hwan, and is then kidnapped without a trace of his whereabouts. He finds himself imprisoned in a hotel where he’s fed the same Chinese food every day for every meal. All he has is the TV to keep him company. He’s provided with a pen and several notebooks. Oh Dae-su uses these notebooks as journals to keep a record of his time locked away from the outside world. Although Oldboy and Squid Game are vastly different, a similar characterization can also be observed in Squid Game protagonist Gi-hun.
In Oldboy 2013, Joe Doucett is an alcoholic but is never arrested; instead he’s shown ruining a big meeting by hitting on the woman of a potential client. He buys a Chinese rubber duck from a street vendor for his daughter’s third birthday and is abducted by a woman carrying a yellow umbrella. Most of the hotel sequences are similar, but he doesn’t just eat Chinese food: he’s fed milk, Frosted Flakes, and even a microwaveable burrito, among other things. Furthermore, every meal comes with at least one bottle of vodka, Joe’s drink of choice.
2013’s Oldboy has a unique sequence where Joe befriends a white mouse, who keeps him company and makes him happy for a short period of time. Joe makes a bed for her made out of torn up toilet paper, and she has babies, which Joe is ecstatic about – an empowering relationship somewhat reminiscent of Remy and Linguini in Pixar’s Ratatouille. However, Joe wakes up one day to find the mouse and her babies gone, and sobs over her disappearance. Later that day, his meal arrives on a silver platter, and the mouse and her dead babies are revealed to be inside cooked with garnish for Joe.
Oh Dae-su masturbates to women he sees on TV in Oldboy 2003. The scene isn’t meant to be sexual, but more of a means of feeling something from another human being. There are juicy and nauseating sound effects, but it’s fairly brief. In 2013’s Oldboy remake, Joe masturbates to a woman using a thigh master in Oldboy 2013 and it’s stretched out to have them groan and mutter, “Yeah,” to each other awkwardly. Joe also bites the webbing of his hand until it bleeds in order to draw a face in his blood on his pillowcase for comfort, in a way that reminds of Wilson from Cast Away.
The most noticeable difference between the two films while the main character is imprisoned is what they write on the paper provided to them in the hotel room. Oh Dae-su writes a detailed journal of what he goes through over the course of several years in Oldboy 2003. Joe writes letters to his daughter Mia in Oldboy 2013. Before he gets locked away, Joe isn’t a good father. His letters are filled with his regrets and his desires while asking for forgiveness for never being there for Mia.
Oldboy 2003 makes a thought-provoking comparison between ants and loneliness, as Mi-do states that when you’re lonely and desperate you hallucinate and see ants. She compares it to ants being in groups and lonely individuals always thinking about that, since they only have themselves to keep them company. These scenes are crucial to why, out of the movies in Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy, Oldboy is the most compelling. While in his hotel room, Oh Dae-su sees an ant crawling under his skin before a swarm of them are suddenly crawling all over his face. Mi-do relates it to a time when she was alone on the subway and saw a human-sized ant in the same car as her.
Oldboy 2013 compiles the hallucinations and that dreaded sense of loneliness into one short sequence where a bearded and long-haired Joe sees a bellhop at the hotel sitting on his bed eating popcorn and laughing at the TV. He offers Joe some of his popcorn but disappears once Joe happily reaches for some. The illusion of seeing someone or something is still there, but it doesn’t dig as deep. Notably, Taika Waititi’s hated film Jojo Rabbit explores this type of comfort hallucination better.
Oh Dae-su’s wife is murdered after he is imprisoned for one year. Upon meeting Lee Woo-jin for the first time, Oh Dae-su leaves Mi-do vulnerable and she’s held captive by Mr. Park and his men. She’s tied up and her bare chest is hanging out, but the violation and molestation is implied. “Touching” Mi-do is all that’s mentioned in Oldboy 2003. In Oldboy 2013, Joe’s ex-wife Donna is raped and murdered. The heinous act is recorded and used as leverage against Joe. Later, Chaney has his henchman Cortez rape Marie.
When Lee Woo-jin is breaking down the rules of the game for Oh Dae-su into in Oldboy 2003, he claims to have a pacemaker with a remote that could cause Dae-su’s heart to stop at any moment, and threatens to do this if Dae-su tries to kill him – one of the many horror movie tropes and easter eggs in Oldboy. Lee Woo-jin then states that he’ll kill Mi-do if Oh Dae-su can’t figure out who he is after five days have passed.
Adrian Doyle Pryce adds more rewards to Joe’s “release” in Oldboy 2013. Both films toy with the captor releasing his prisoner. That release is all a part of the game as the world is essentially a bigger prison the captor has trapped their prisoner in. If Joe can figure out who Adrian is and why he imprisoned Joe, Adrian will give Joe the recording of him raping and killing his ex-wife, a written confession of those crimes along with his imprisonment, $20 million in diamonds, and he gets to watch Adrian blow his brains out.
Shot over the course of three days in Oldboy 2003, the hammer/corridor sequence has no hidden cuts and is actually shot in one-take, unlike other movies that use tricks for one-shot scenes. That said, some CGI is used for the knife in Dae-su’s back and to land hidden punches. Furthermore, the dimly lit sequence lasts about three minutes. The hallway sequence is allegedly re-edited by producers in Oldboy 2013 and is about 15 seconds shorter in comparison, and tries to outdo how impressive the original sequence is. The remake chooses to have windows with sunlight, as the mayhem take place on three separate levels, and Joe seems to take less damage than Dae-su. The knife is stabbed in Joe’s back at the end of the fight compared to Oh Dae-su getting stabbed closer to the middle.
Not everything from Oldboy 2003 transitions over to Oldboy 2013. The remake chooses to hint at several of the most memorable elements from Oldboy 2003 with teases to those beloved scenes – a common tool across modern movie remakes of old stories. In Oldboy 2003, Oh Dae-su eats a live octopus after he’s released. In Oldboy 2013, Joe stares at an octopus in a fish tank. The street vendor Joe buys the rubber duck from is wearing angel wings, which references Oh Dae-su’s birthday present to his daughter in Oldboy 2003. Chaney’s bleached Mohawk pays homage to Mr. Han. Oh Dae-su cuts out his tongue with a pair of scissors at the end of Oldboy 2003. The tongue of Chucky, Joe’s best friend, is sent to him as a gift instead in Oldboy 2013.
Mr. Park runs everything at the hotel in Oldboy 2003, and he’s more of a secondary crime lord to Lee Woo-jin, who keeps tabs on all of the hotel’s tenants. Mr. Han is Lee Woo-jin’s right-hand man that fights for him and protects him at every turn, like how the infamous Luca Brasi served Don Corleone in The Godfather. Mr. Han and Mr. Park seem to have been rolled into one in Oldboy 2013. Chaney is basically both characters while Adrian’s bodyguard is a woman named Haeng-bok; she has very few lines and doesn’t do much besides fight and hold an umbrella.
What drives Lee Woo-jin to imprison Oh Dae-su for so long in Oldboy 2003 is that Dae-su tells his best friend, Joo-hwan, about Lee Woo-jin and his sister, Lee Soo-ah, having sex with each other back in high school. Joo-hwan then tells his girlfriend and word quickly spreads around campus. Lee Soo-ah commits suicide because of it. Lee Woo-jin’s revenge comes in the form of hypnotizing both Oh Dae-su and Mi-do to fall in love with each other, but due to being in prison for 15 years Oh Dae-su doesn’t recognize that Mi-do is his now adult daughter. In a way, this has provided a blueprint for how series/movies use incest for plot twists in more recent media.
Meanwhile, in 2013’s Oldboy, Joe catches Adrian’s sister Amanda having sex with their father Arthur at school. She’s horribly teased by all of the students afterwards. By the end of the film, it’s revealed that Arthur is having sex with both Amanda and Adrian. Arthur moves his family away to Luxembourg where he later murders his wife and daughter with a shotgun and only wounds Adrian.
Oh Dae-su cuts out his tongue and hypnotizes himself to forget about the truth regarding Mi-do in Oldboy 2003. It’s never revealed who Oh Dae-su really is to her. He can no longer speak, but they can now live happily together without interference since Lee Woo-jin commits suicide. Meanwhile, Adrian fakes television’s longest running crime program just to get inside Joe’s head in Oldboy 2013’s ending – not unlike WandaVision’s darkly comedic use of a sitcom-within-a-series. The program only has one viewer for its entire run. A well-paid actress has pretended to be Mia the entire time, as well. Since Joe wins Adrian’s game, he receives the $20 million in diamonds. He gives most of them to Marie along with a box full of other mementos like the rubber duck and a letter saying she’ll never see him again but that he’ll love her forever. She drives off to live her life with the rubber duck on the dashboard of her truck. Meanwhile, Joe gives the rest of his diamonds to Chaney who imprisons Joe back in the hotel room for the rest of his life.
Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, the original movie, is definitely better than the 2013 Oldboy remake, which is one of the more underwhelming films made by Spike Lee. The problem with remaking a movie that’s hinged around a single giant twist is that the element of surprise no longer applies. In fact, because of the original Oldboy‘s cult status, even some who’ve never seen the movie are aware of its father-daughter incest twist, which has become the subject of jokes, memes, and online discussions about pop culture. That said, it’s incorrect to label the Oldboy remake a bad movie. What’s different in the Oldboy remake also makes it unique, and it remains a worthwhile piece of cinema living in the shadow of a great piece. As Spike Lee himself explains, 2013’s Oldboy remake is more a reinterpretation of the original Korean thriller than a remake. Although Spike Lee’s Oldboy fails to use the element of surprise and capture the visceral nature of Park Chan-wook’s dark incestuous tale, it’s still a tribute that warrants a watch.
Oldboy isn’t the only movie featuring both Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Olsen. The two actors are more famously known by their respective characters in the MCU – the Mad Titan Thanos and Scarlet Witch. Apart from bringing new life to 2003’s Oldboy in Spike Lee’s remake, Brolin and Olsen’s pairing are at the center of the Thanos and Scarlet Witch beef, which was one of the most anticipated confrontations during the MCU’s Avengers era. Although Thanos is dead, given Brolin and Olsen’s onscreen chemistry, the two could soon pair up (or face off) once more in another feature.