Oldboy: A case study in intercultural adaptation theory

This post is based on a paper I wrote for Dr. Blair Davis‘ class on Adaptation during the Spring 2014 quarter at DePaul University in Chicago, IL. The purpose of this assignment is to “Choose any media text (I.e. film, comic book, novel, radio or television program, etc.) that is an adaptation of a text from another medium. You may choose a text from any era or country, but it must be based upon something from another medium (I.e. don’t choose a film that re-envisions another film, for instance). For example, the H.G. Wells novel War of the Worlds has been adapted as a 1938 radio program, a 1952 film and a 2005 film, and either of these three adaptations might be examined in relation to the source text.” Therefore, I decided to look at how the various versions of Oldboy can be used as a case study to reconsider existing adaptation theories in relation to the phenomenon of cross-cultural adaptation, which is becoming increasingly common in the globalized world of the 21st century. BE WARNED: there are major spoilers for all three versions of Oldboy here, so if you have not seen/read them and want to remain unspoiled going in, you might want to skip this post. Otherwise, I welcome any and all feedback, so please feel free to join the conversation on adaptation by leaving a comment in the comments section. Thank you.

INTRODUCTION

The phenomenon of intercultural adaptation has become a common practice in the increasingly globalized world of the 21st century.1 In the contemporary transnational media landscape, many adaptations not only represent material that has been transposed from one medium to another, but also from one cultural or national context to another. With increasing regularity, a source text that originates in one specific context will often yield an adaptation generated within a completely different context.2 Therefore, intercultural adaptations illustrate the need to reconsider existing adaptation theories to address notions of cultural specificity. Indeed, many of the current canonical adaptation theories are rooted in literary theory, and tend to focus on the idea of fidelity and whether or not the adaptation functions as a faithful recreation of the source text. Soo Jung Hong, however, argues that when considering adaptations in a transcultural or transnational context, it is often more important to focus on representations of tone in relation to the different cultural contexts involved in the adaptation and whether or not it reflects or highlights any sort of commonly shared cultural values.3 Hong writes that “fidelity of the adapted text can be a possible standard measuring the cultural implications a text is generating as a product in a cultural community.”4 In other words, while the theories that currently comprise much of the scholarship surrounding the phenomenon of adaptation remain relevant and useful for considering notions of fidelity, they nevertheless must be reconsidered to take into account the cultural and national contexts that frequently define adaptations in the increasingly globalized 21st century.

I contend that Oldboy represents a useful case study for the reconsideration of adaptation theories. The case not only highlights the industrial and economic practices inherent in adapting a text from one medium to another, but each iteration of the story also addresses different cultural and national anxieties as the story is translated from a Japanese context to a Korean context, and finally to an American context via Hollywood (Fig. 1). Originally created by writer Garon Tsuchiya and illustrator Nobuaki Minegishi, Old Boy initially appeared as a Japanese manga series first published in 79 total installments for the magazine Weekly Manga Action from 1996 to 1998. In 2003, South Korean director Park Chan-wook wrote and directed a loose adaptation of the series, which would go on to become an international success, winning various awards including the Grand Prix of the Jury at the 57th annual Cannes Film Festival.5 The film’s critical and commercial success, combined with the growing popularity of anime and manga adaptations in the United States, brought the property to the attention of Hollywood executive Roy Lee, who optioned the rights to Park’s adaptation with an eye toward an American remake.6 In 2008 rumors surfaced that Steven Spielberg was attached to direct a new adaptation of the original manga rather than a remake of the Korean film, and that Will Smith was to star in the lead role, but that version never happened7. After years of languishing in development, the film was finally made in 2013 by director Spike Lee.8 In each version, the text reflects or represents the cultural attitudes and anxieties of the different nations involved in the production. Thus, Oldboy not only functions as an example of the various adaptive strategies that consider the transposition of material from one medium to another, but it also exists within a transnational and transcultural context and therefore represents a valuable case study when reconsidering those same adaptation theories in relation to 21st globalization.

Fig. 1: The three different versions of Oldboy each reflect different cultural concerns, and therefore they demonstrate how adaptive strategies must be reconsidered to take into account intercultural adaptations.
Fig. 1: The three different versions of Oldboy each reflect different cultural concerns, and therefore they reinforce the idea that adaptive strategies must be reconsidered to account for changes that occur when a text travels from one cultural or national context to another.

GLOBALIZATION AND THE RECONSIDERATION OF ADAPTATION THEORY

Pascal Lefèvre contends that while adaptations of comic books tend to be popular, they nevertheless highlight the problematic nature of translating or transposing a text from one medium to another because they often illustrate and reinforce issues surrounding fidelity more starkly than do literary adaptations.9 Comic books and films both function as representations of visual media, and they each use a combination of words and images to tell stories in a more or less sequential fashion. Therefore, film shares a closer link with comic books than it does with other visual arts such as painting, or more explicitly non-visual arts such as prose novels. Indeed, comic books are sometimes considered a perfect medium for cinematic adaptation, because in many ways they resemble the storyboards generated during the preproduction phase of a film.10 Others, however, argue that comic books are more than just glorified storyboards, and that they comprise a wholly separate storytelling medium that functions in a manner similar to film, but nevertheless has its own unique approach to narrative and style that sets it apart.11 Similarly, Lefèvre argues that comic books and films have what he terms an “incompatible visual ontology” that manifests in the way each medium presents stories, and that viewers react differently to these approaches to storytelling. Furthermore, these differences in technique present a challenge in creating faithful adaptations, especially when attempting to translate a “highly stylized or caricatured drawing in a photographic image.”12 In other words, what works as a drawn image on the page may not always work as a photorealistic image translated to film.

In this video, online film critic Devin Faraci of the website Badass Digest discusses the ins and outs of comic book adaptations with a celebrity panel.

Lefèvre’s argument is useful to the discussion of Oldboy, because in many ways the text emblematizes the difficulty in translating a comic book to a film, and Lefèvre’s consideration of adaptive strategies focuses specifically on those involved in transposing texts between these two media. At the same time, however, it emphasizes the notion of fidelity to the source material over almost all other considerations, including notions of cultural specificity. This preoccupation with fidelity is a common trait among the literary adaptation theories established in the 20th century, which tend to ignore issues of cultural specificity in favor of examining whether or not the adaptation remained faithful to the source material. Cultural context is vital to the discussion of intercultural adaptations such as Oldboy, because each version of the story not only reflects the industrial production methods inherent to its specific medium, but also the sociocultural tensions and anxieties of its nation of origin. Therefore, while Lefèvre’s notion of incompatible visual ontologies is relevant to the discussion of Oldboy as an adaptation from one medium to another, it does not take into account notions of cultural specificity and the effects of intercultural communication.

Timothy Corrigan touches upon this notion of cultural specificity when he writes that adaptations “sometimes have a less direct relation with a literary source than with the larger cultural place of literary visions.”13 Many cinematic adaptations function as reflections of literary notions regarding cultural identities throughout different historical periods. Thus, rather than faithfulness to a specific literary text, adaptations are instead faithful to an overarching mythical or archetypal construction of a specific cultural or national heritage. Corrigan contends that Citizen Kane (1941, dir. Orson Welles) is perhaps the most prominent example of this phenomenon (Fig. 2). He argues that the film is at least partly inspired by Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, which positions the character of Colonel Kurtz as a product of European culture, and thus he represents and reflects the cultural tensions and anxieties that existed in Europe at the time of the novel’s writing. Similarly, the eponymous central figure in Citizen Kane repeatedly identifies himself as an American even as he associates with the likes of Adolph Hitler, and therefore he comes to reflect American cultural attitudes and anxieties surrounding the nation’s involvement in World War II.14

Fig. 2: Timothy Corrigan argues that Citizen Kane reflects the cultural anxieties of 1940s America, and therefore it illustrates how adaptations sometimes tap into the fears and concerns of a society during a specific historical period.
Fig. 2: Timothy Corrigan argues that Citizen Kane reflects the cultural anxieties of 1940s America, and therefore it illustrates how adaptations sometimes tap into the fears and concerns of a society during a specific historical period.

While Corrigan’s theory does begin to address the role that cultural context plays in adaptation, it still does not address the notion of cultural specificity as it relates to intercultural adaptations such as Oldboy. The world of the 21st century has become increasingly globalized, which has resulted in a transnational media environment that actively encourages the process of intercultural adaptation.15 Indeed, as Emily Apter points out, a sort of global market has arisen due to an increase in multinational business practices and political movements, and with it comes a need to consider how mass cultural objects are transposed or translated across “linguistic, cultural, and social contexts.”16 Similarly, Hong contends that media adaptation represents a global phenomenon; because these adaptations often function as products subject to outside forces such as commercialism and imperialism, any alterations or transformations must be considered in relation to specific cultural and historical concerns, anxieties, tensions, and preferences.17 Notions of fidelity to the source material should be considered in relation to instances of cultural specificity, and how those instances reflect common cultural reference points or values, and thus function as capital in a global cultural community. Therefore, while literary adaptation theories still provide useful foundations for considering intercultural adaptations, they nevertheless need to be reconsidered to account for notions of cultural specificity in an increasingly globalized world.

I contend that Oldboy represents a valuable case study through which adaptation theories can be considered, because it not only represents an intertextual adaptation, but also an intercultural adaptation that reflects and represents three distinct cultural contexts. Furthermore, while both cinematic adaptations of Oldboy alter the story in a number of ways so that it better reflects specific cultural concerns and anxieties, they still include visuals referents that hearken back to the source material and its nation of origin. Thus each film invokes considerations of fidelity and faithfulness, and therefore they conform to existing adaptation theories while highlighting the need to reconsider those same theories within the context of globalization and cultural specificity.

THE THREE STORIES OF OLDBOY

While the basic narrative thrust of Oldboy remains the same across all three versions, there are enough specific differences between each of them that all warrant their own brief plot synopses. In the manga series, 25 year old protagonist Shinichi Gotō spends a decade imprisoned in a private jail for unknown reasons (Fig. 3). At the age of 35, Gotō is suddenly and inexplicably released, and he immediately sets out to track down his captors to discover why he spent a decade in confinement. Along the way he meets Eri, a young waitress who quickly becomes Gotō’s lover. Shortly thereafter, Gotō reconnects with Tsukamoto, a former co-worker who now owns a bar called Moon Dog in the Golden Gai section of Tokyo. Gotō enlists his friends’ aid in his quest to track down his captors, and the trail eventually leads them to Gotō’s former homeroom teacher Kurata Yoko, who now writes mystery novels under the name Kusama Yayoi. Kurata agrees to help Gotō track down his captor, and they soon discover it was a former classmate of Gotō’s named Kakinuma Takaaki. After a tense cat and mouse game that lasts for many chapters, Gotō finally learns the reason for his decade-long imprisonment; he was once moved to tears by Kakinuma’s singing. This naked display of emotion so humiliated Kakinuma that he spent his entire life doubting his own success and worth as a man, and from that point on, he was consumed with a desire to ruin Gotō’s life in return. Kakinuma admits that he not only had Gotō imprisoned, but that he also had Eri hypnotized so that she would fall in love with Gotō. Following this pronouncement, Kakinuma shoots himself in the head and kills himself. Gotō moves in with Eri, but he is plagued by recurring dreams that she has also been hypnotized to kill herself, so his days are spent dreading what might happen, implying that Kakinuma’s revenge continues even after his death.

Fig. 3: A panel featuring Shinichi Goto, the melancholy protagonist of the Old Boy manga series.
Fig. 3: A panel featuring Shinichi Gotō, the melancholy protagonist of the Old Boy manga series.

In Park Chan-wook’s adaptation, the protagonist becomes Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), a salary man, husband, father and drunkard (Fig. 4). The film opens in 1988 with Dae-su in police custody after being picked up for public drunkenness. He is released when his friend, Joo-hwan (Ji Dae-han), agrees to take him home. Dae-su never makes it home, however, because he is captured by unknown assailants and incarcerated for 15 years in a prison cell made to resemble a small hotel room. Dae-su is mysteriously released in 2003, and like Gotō, he immediately seeks to discover who imprisoned him and why. Dae-su visits a Japanese restaurant and meets Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong), a young woman reputed to be the best sushi chef in South Korea. Enamored of Dae-su, Mi-do agrees to aid his quest for revenge. They learn that a man named Lee Woo-jin (Yu Ji-tae) orchestrated the incarceration, and unless Dae-su can discover the within five days, Woo-jin will have Mi-do killed. To escape this fate, Dae-su and Mi-do flee the city, and along the way they become lovers. Eventually, they uncover that Woo-jin’s sister, Soo-ah (Yoon Jin-seo), committed suicide shortly after Dae-su caught her having sex with another student. Believing he has solved the mystery, Dae-su confronts Woo-jin, who explains that he had an incestuous relationship with his sister, and that he has always blamed Dae-su for her death. Woo-jin further reveals that Mi-do is Dae-su’s daughter, and that he had them both hypnotized so that they would fall in love and have sex. Horrified, Dae-su begs Woo-jin not to reveal this information to Mi-do, and he cuts out his own tongue to prevent himself from revealing the truth to her. With his revenge complete, Woo-jin shoots himself in the head. Dae-su, meanwhile, tracks down the woman who originally hypnotized him, and begs her to wipe the truth from his brain. She does so, and Dae-su continues his relationship with Mi-do, though his pained grimace at the end of the movie indicates that the hypnosis may not have been as complete as he had hoped.

Fig. 4: Choi Min-sik as Oh Dae-su in Park Chan-wook's film adaptation of Oldboy.
Fig. 4: Choi Min-sik as Oh Dae-su in Park Chan-wook’s film adaptation of Oldboy.

Finally, Spike Lee’s version focuses on an alcoholic advertising executive named Joe Doucette (Josh Brolin), who lives and works in an unnamed city that represents a fusion of Western and Eastern influences (Fig. 5). After a day of alienating potential clients and arguing with his ex-wife about his three year old daughter’s upcoming birthday party, Joe gets extremely drunk and passes out in an alley. He wakes up in an unfamiliar hotel room, and when he tries to leave, he discovers that he is trapped. Joe spends the next 20 years of his life in that cell without knowing why he has been captured or by whom. Like Gotō and Oh Dae-su, Joe spends his time watching TV, honing his body, and eating dumplings from a Chinese restaurant. Also like Gotō and Dae-su, Joe is mysteriously released, and immediately sets out to learn who did this and why. Along the way he meets Marie Sebastian (Elizabeth Olsen), a young nurse who takes a liking to Joe and offers to help him get his revenge. They soon discover that Joe was imprisoned by a former college classmate named Adrian Pryce (Sharlto Copley), and that Pryce blames Joe for the death of his sister, Amanda. Recalling the past, Joe remembers that he caught Amanda having sex with an older man and told his friends about it. The rumor spread, and soon Amanda developed a reputation for being promiscuous. Following this revelation, Joe and Marie hide out in a hotel and become lovers. Eventually, Joe tracks down Adrian and confronts him. Adrian explains that the man Amanda was having sex with was their father, who killed Amanda and their mother, and tried to kill Adrian before finally committing suicide. Adrian blames Joe for the death of his family, and in revenge he tricked Joe into sleeping with Marie, who is actually Joe’s daughter. Unable to live with the truth of what he has done, Joe begs Adrian to kill him, but Adrian shoots himself instead. Joe writes Marie a letter telling her they can never see one another again, and then returns to his prison cell to remain in captivity for the rest of his life.

Fig. 5: Josh Brolin as Joe Doucette in Spike Lee's version of Oldboy.
Fig. 5: Josh Brolin as Joe Doucette in Spike Lee’s version of Oldboy.

SAME STORY, DIFFERENT DETAILS: OLDBOY AS ADAPTATION

While the broader strokes of the narrative remain more or less intact in each version of Oldboy, the story details have nevertheless been transposed and altered from a Japanese cultural context to a South Korean cultural context. Furthermore, the story undergoes even more changes when adapted into a Western cultural context by Hollywood, which attempts to alter the film so that it becomes palatable to American audiences while still remaining broadly appealing enough to play to international audiences. Thus, while Oldboy adheres in some ways to Corrigan’s discussion of cultural and national identities during different historical periods, it simultaneously highlights the need to consider the role cultural specificity plays in intercultural adaptations.

The original manga series addresses a number of specific Japanese sociocultural concerns, including notions of masculinity, the crash of the Japanese stock market in 1990, and the subsequent dissatisfaction with political leaders (Fig. 6). First, the central conflict in the manga reflects the tensions that surround Japanese notions of masculinity, which are often characterized by internal strength and social role conformity as opposed to the outward physical strength and individualism typically emphasized by Western societies.18 Flashbacks reveal that Kakinuma was a lonely and sad child, and when he sings the traditional Japanese song “Hana no Machi” (English title: “Town of Flowers”), Gotō is able to sense Kakinuma’s sadness so profoundly that it moves him to tears. This emotional expression represents an affront to Kakinuma’s manhood, and serves as the catalyst for his labyrinthine revenge plot. More importantly, though, this conflict is essential in how the manga positions each character in relation to notions of Japanese masculinity. While Kakinuma is depicted as craven and lonely, Gotō is the epitome of Japanese masculinity, being a popular, well-liked boy who grows into a man characterized primarily by his emotional strength and inner resolve. Additionally, the relationship between Gotō and Kakinuma also reflects traditional Japanese business relationships, with Gotō as the driven, hardworking salary man and Kakinuma as the stern boss who pushes his employees to work harder. Therefore, while both characters are extreme and altogether aberrant manifestations of these cultural stereotypes, they nevertheless conform to specific social roles, which represent how the book addresses specific cultural notions regarding constructions of masculinity.

Fig. 6: The Old Boy manga deals with themes of Japanese masculinity, economic anxieties, and political dissatisfaction.
Fig. 6: The Old Boy manga deals with themes of Japanese masculinity, economic anxieties, and political dissatisfaction.

In addition to issues of masculinity, the manga also explicitly tackles issues specific to the Japanese economy, particularly the Japanese stock market crash and the resulting collapse of the bubble economy. Between 1985 and 1990, Japan had a thriving economy, but this period ended when the Nikkei stock average plunged in December 1990, resulting in a US$2 trillion loss that led to widespread bankruptcy in both the public and private sector.19 Given the publishing dates of the series, it can be assumed that Gotō was imprisoned in 1988, roughly two years before the bubble burst, and therefore incarcerated during the early years of Japan’s so-called “Lost Decade.” Kakinuma, however, made his fortune during this period. As one character explains, Kakinuma had a talent for predicting the stock market, and while others went bankrupt during this time, he was able to make enough money off his investments that he could afford to pay 300 million yen to have Gotō imprisoned for 10 years in a private prison. Furthermore, the manga repeatedly addresses the sociocultural fallout of the stock market crash by referring to political leaders or figures of authority as ineffectual, no doubt echoing the sentiments of many after various government-sponsored fiscal and economic stimulus measures failed to revive the Japanese economy.20 These discussions represent some of the most prominent examples of how the manga addresses and reflects specific Japanese sociocultural concerns. While many of these same details appear in Park Chan-wook’s film adaptation, they have nevertheless been altered to reflect anxieties that are specific to the South Korean experience.

It is important to note that Japan and Korea have a history of intercultural transmission as a result of the Japanese colonial occupation of Korea from around 1910 until roughly the end of World War II in 1945.21 Nevertheless, while the Old Boy manga and the Oldboy film address similar cultural concerns and anxieties, they each do so in a way specific to their nation of origin. Indeed, Park Chan-wook’s film includes references to many of the overarching sociocultural tensions and anxieties that afflicted South Korea during the time of production, and it does so in such a way that the story becomes highly specific to the South Korean cultural context. For instance, Park’s film establishes that the protagonist also works as a salary man, but the context of this detail has been altered so that it reflects the specific South Korean sociocultural experience at the time of the film’s release. Choi Min-sik, who plays Oh Dae-su, portrayed a salary man in the popular South Korean film Happy End (1999, dir. Jung Ji-woo), and therefore his presence in Oldboy provides an intertextual reference to South Korean audiences. More importantly, however, the character of the salary men represents specific South Korean values such as sacrifice, family and nationalism, which state that “one worked diligently not for the sake of financial compensation, but on behalf of a family structure and of the nation at large.”22 Dae-su’s appearance at the beginning of the film reflects the cultural experience of the typical South Korean salary and family man, many of whom often drinks to excess in order to relieve the stress of trying to juggle work and family life.23 His relationship to Woo-Jin also reflects this work dynamic; Woo-jin represents the boss who is driving Dae-su’s labors, and serving as the source of all his stress and anxiety.

The slightly NSFW Japanese trailer for Happy End (1999), starring Oldboy‘s Choi Min-sik as a typical Korean salary man.

Additionally, the opening sequence of the film, which does not have an equivalent sequence in the manga series, allows Park Chan-wook to comment upon the state of police authority in South Korea during the time of the film’s release. In this sequence, Dae-su sits in a police station following his arrest for drunken and disorderly conduct. The shot composition focuses on Dae-su during this sequence, and he remains unruly throughout, even when restrained with handcuffs. The police, on the other hand, are rarely seen outside of a brief appearance in which they wrestle Dae-su to the ground, but otherwise they allow Dae-su to act out and cause trouble. Kyung Hyun Kim argues that this reflects a widespread cultural perception that South Korean authorities have gone soft in the post-authoritarian era of the 21st century.24 Despite the fact that this scene is set in 1988, the film nevertheless reflects the attitudes of the era in which it was produced, no doubt to comment upon the modern perception of police authority. These examples illustrate how the story is also transposed from a Japanese cultural context to a South Korean one during the process of translating the manga to film. Oldboy undergoes even more changes when adapted by Hollywood, which doesn’t so much tailor it to reflect a specific American cultural context, but rather attempts to alter the source material so that it is appealing to Western audiences while still remaining relevant to an Eastern audience.

Currently, no scholarship exists on Spike Lee’s adaptation of Oldboy, but reviews of the film offer insight into the adaptive strategies employed during production. Indeed, many reviewers focused on the film’s tendency to reference Park’s film, and they point out that the film fails to establish its own identity.25 Indeed, Lee’s version of Oldboy includes numerous callbacks to Park’s version, while still trying to put a new spin on the material. This adaptation strategy sets it apart from Park’s film, which strove to establish its own identity while still retaining the core elements of the story. As the opening credits of Lee’s film establish, however, it is “Based on the Korean film” rather than the graphic novel. This statement actually speaks to the industrial practices of Hollywood, which tends to prefer remaking or adapting manga and other foreign material rather than release the original to American audiences who are often adverse to reading subtitles.26 More importantly, though, Hollywood tends to produce films with an eye toward international distribution, and thus studio executives tend to demand that films that are universally appealing to audiences on a global scale.27

The goal of reaching a global audience might explain why the protagonist’s quest was altered to fit a more traditional Hollywood-style redemptive arc. In both the original manga and Park’s adaptation, the lead character endures his imprisonment and subsequent quest for revenge relatively unchanged. Spike Lee’s version, however, immediately establishes Joe Doucette as a thoroughly unappealing character, but one capable of redemption. When the film starts, Joe is an alcoholic who regularly belittles his ex-wife, ignores his daughter, and hits on other men’s girlfriends. During his imprisonment, Joe sees a news story that his ex-wife has been murdered and his daughter has been sent to live with a new family. Joe vows then and there to stop drinking, and to change his ways so that someday he may be worthy of his daughter’s love. Furthermore, he wants to escape from his prison so that he may once again see his little girl, rather in addition to getting revenge on his captors. While revenge represents an important theme in the film, the promise of reuniting with his daughter is the primary factor that motivates Joe to rebuild his body and become a better person.

Spike Lee discusses the remake of Oldboy with Eric Walkulski of the website JoBlo.com.

More importantly, though, whereas Dae-su opted to forget that Mi-do was his daughter so that they could continue their relationship, Joe must live with the knowledge that he slept with his own child. Rather than burden Marie with the horrible truth of what they did, he instead chooses to return to prison, and remain there for the rest of his life. The film positions Joe as a tragic hero, and in some small way allows him to be redeemed. This act sets Lee’s film apart from both the manga and the Korean film, in which the protagonists’ insistence on conforming to cultural conceptions of masculinity ultimately lead them to uncertain fates. Joe at least has some closure to his tale, which is reflected in his smile at the end of the film, which, unlike Dae-su’s, does not fade when the credits role. Therefore, while Lee’s film does not necessarily speak to specific American cultural concerns, it does reflect prevailing cultural attitudes regarding masculinity, heroism, and redemption, which Hollywood then positions as a sort of universal story.

It is worth noting that even though the stories diverge in a number of significant ways, Lee’s film nevertheless visually refers back to both Park’s film and the manga at several points (Fig. 7). For instance, early in the film, Joe wanders into Chinatown, perhaps as a way to establish a link to Park’s film through an Asian connotation. Specifically, this most likely refers to the dumplings that recur throughout each version of the story, and function as an important plot device in the protagonists’ quests to learn the truth. During this sequence, Joe encounters a woman wearing angel wings similar to the pair that Dae-su purchased for his daughter’s birthday present, and the woman wearing them even makes them flap in way that recalls a moment in Park’s film when Mi-do wore the wings. Later in this sequence, Joe encounters a woman with a yellow umbrella that features a design that not only foreshadows the 20 years Joe will be imprisoned, but also evoke the tick marks Oh Dae-su tattoos on his arms to mark the time he has been imprisoned. Additionally, stains on the carpet of Joe’s cell recall the blood stains that appeared on the carpet in Dae-su’s cell following two suicide attempts in which he slit his wrists.

Fig. 7: Spike Lee's Oldboy features a number of callbacks to Park Chan-wook's film. For instance, Joe Doucette takes a moment to regard an octopus, which functions as an intertextual reference to an infamous sequence in Park's film. Image credit: http://www.joblo.com/movie-news/spike-lee-explains-samuel-l-jacksons-hair-in-oldboy-plus-new-images
Fig. 7: Spike Lee’s Oldboy features a number of callbacks to Park Chan-wook’s film. For instance, Joe Doucette takes a moment to regard an octopus, which functions as an intertextual reference to an infamous sequence in Park’s version of the story. Image credit: http://www.joblo.com/movie-news/spike-lee-explains-samuel-l-jacksons-hair-in-oldboy-plus-new-images

Finally, the iconic hallway fight sequence from Park’s film is recreated here, except this time staged so that the action flows from right to left, and this in and of itself might be an attempt to recreate the traditional Japanese reading style as a nod to the original manga. Furthermore, Joe is presented as more superhuman in this version of the hallway fight, which at once evokes the original film while pointing out the cultural differences that exist between the two. Whereas Dae-su exhibits the effects of exhaustion and pain, Joe appears indestructible in the vein of a traditional Hollywood action hero. Additionally, in Lee’s film the violence feels much more stylized, and evokes the sort of heavily choreographed fight sequences that define traditional Hollywood action blockbusters. While the fight sequence in Park’s version was meticulously choreographed, the violence appears sloppy and unrehearsed, and impacts both hero and villains alike. It is not the stylized violence of a Hollywood action star, but rather the messy violence of a man unleashing his anger on the men who held him prisoner for 15 years. Therefore, the inclusion of the hallway fight functions as another visual referent that indicates Lee’s film consciously evokes Park’s film in order to cater to the global audience that made that version such a hit. At the same time, however, the changes made to this sequence in the Hollywood version indicate that the story of Oldboy has been altered to conform to Western understandings of violence and heroism.

Both Spike Lee’s film and Park Chan-wook’s feature a sequence in which the main characters face off against an army of foes. In Spike Lee’s version, protagonist Joe Doucette appears nearly invincible as he battles his way through three levels of enemies.
Meanwhile, in Park Chan-wook’s version, the same sequence feels less choreographed, and both Oh Dae-su and his enemies display the effects of the fight.

CONCLUSION

As I have demonstrated, each version of Oldboy invokes considerations of fidelity and faithfulness, and therefore they conform to existing adaptation theories, while simultaneously highlighting the need to reconsider such theories to take into account notions of intercultural communication and globalization. Through a combination of visual referents and thematic callbacks, Spike Lee’s film evokes both Park Chan-wook’s film and the original manga series, which in turn share a number of similarities that recall shared cultural concerns and anxieties. At the same time, however, each version alters the story in such a way that it comes to reflect specific cultural tensions, concerns, and anxieties. Therefore, while current adaptation theories provide a useful foundation when examining a case like Oldboy, they fail to address issues of cultural specificity that arise when considering intercultural adaptations. Therefore, current adaptation theories need to be reconsidered so that they reflect the concerns that arise when considering intercultural adaptations such as Oldboy, because they cross from one culture to another as they cross from one medium to another.

In many ways, the various versions of Oldboy highlight and reinforce the tensions surrounding adaptation, particularly those identified by scholars such as Pascal Lefèvre and Timothy Corrigan. Indeed, the process of translating the original manga to film emphasizes Lefèvre’s notion of incompatible visual ontologies, particularly in the way the story is told in each medium. Furthermore, each version tends to reflect the broader sociohistorical concerns of its respective eras, reflecting Corrigan’s assertion that adaptations often reflect the larger cultural concerns of a given historical period more than the source material upon which they are based. Therefore, Oldboy speaks to the continuing relevance of the literary adaptation theories established during the 20th century.

At the same time, however, Oldboy also illustrates the need to reconsider these adaptation theories in order to account for more specific notions surrounding cultural tensions and anxieties, especially as intercultural adaptation becomes a more common practice in the increasingly globalized 21st century. Each version of the story reflects very specific cultural concerns and attitudes, and in some cases these go deeper than Corrigan’s idea of a broader mythical or archetypal conception of cultural or national heritage. As Soo Jung Hong points out, intercultural adaptations such as Oldboy often speak to specific cultural concerns, while simultaneously highlighting similarities between different cultures. Therefore, it is vital to reconsider the established adaptation theories in relation to notions of intercultural communication and globalization, and Oldboy represents a valuable case study through which this can be accomplished, because it highlights the role that cultural specificity plays in the process of adaptation.

Endnotes

1. Apter, Emily, “On Translation in a Global Market,” Public Culture 13 (2001): 1-12.

2. Moran, Albert, “Global Franchising, Local Customizing: The Cultural Economy of TV Program Formats,” Continuum 23 (2009): 115-125; Apter, Emily, “On Translation in a Global Market,” Public Culture 13 (2001): 1-12.

3. Hong, Soo Jung, “Three Adaptations of the Japanese Comic Book Boys Over Flowers in the Asian Cultural Community: Analyzing Fidelity and Modification from the Perspective of Globalization and Glocalization,” The Qualitative Report 19 (2014): 1-18.

4. Hong, “Three Adaptations of the Japanese Comic Book Boys Over Flowers in the Asian Cultural Community: Analyzing Fidelity and Modification from the Perspective of Globalization and Glocalization,” 3.

5. Festival de Cannes. “Grand Prix to ‘Old Boy’ by Park Chan-Wook,” Festival de Cannes, http://www.festival-cannes.com/fr/theDailyArticle/43008.html (accessed June 1, 2014); Box Office Mojo, “Oldboy (2005),” Box Office Mojo. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=oldboy.htm (accessed June 1, 2014).

6. Hendrix, Grady, “Manga’s the rights fit for majors,” Variety, May 29 – June 4, 2006: A8 – A10.

7. Child, Ben, “Spielberg and Smith plot Oldboy remake,” theguardian.com, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2008/nov/07/spielberg-smith-oldboy-remake (accessed June 1, 2014); Hardawar, Devindra, “Steven Spielberg and Will Smith’s Old Boy is No More,” /Film RSS, http://www.slashfilm.com/steven-spielberg-and-will-smiths-old-boy-is-no-more/ (accessed June 1, 2014).

8. Corliss, Richard, “Spike Lee’s ‘Oldboy’: Remaking a Sick Classic,” TIME.com, http://entertainment.time.com/2013/11/27/spike-lees-oldboy-remaking-a-sick-classic/ (accessed May 20, 2014).

9. Lefèvre, Pascal, “Incompatible Visual Ontologies?: The Problematic Adaptation of Drawn images,” In Film and Comic Books, ed. Ian Gordon. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007.

10. Brady, Terrence J., “Comic Books & Storyboarding,” TMe, http://www.teako170.com/story.html (accessed June 2, 2014).

11. Weaver, Tyler, “More Than Storyboards: Comics & Film – On Writing Comics,” http://www.scriptmag.com/features/more-than-storyboards-comics-film-on-writing-comics (accessed June 2, 2014).

12. Lefèvre, “Incompatible Visual Ontologies?: The Problematic Adaptation of Drawn images,” 9.

13. Corrigan, “Pens, Pulp, and the Crisis of the Word, 1940-1960, 40.

14. Corrigan, Timothy, “Pens, Pulp, and the Crisis of the Word, 1940-1960,” In Film and Literature: an Introduction and Reader, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Routledge, 1999.

15. Apter, Emily, “On Translation in a Global Market,” Public Culture 13 (2001): 1-12; Hong, Soo Jung, “Three Adaptations of the Japanese Comic Book Boys Over Flowers in the Asian Cultural Community: Analyzing Fidelity and Modification from the Perspective of Globalization and Glocalization,” The Qualitative Report 19 (2014): 1-18.

16. Apter, “On Translation in a Global Market,” 1.

17. Hong, Soo Jung, “Three Adaptations of the Japanese Comic Book Boys Over Flowers in the Asian Cultural Community: Analyzing Fidelity and Modification from the Perspective of Globalization and Glocalization,” The Qualitative Report 19 (2014): 1-18.

18. Charlebois, Justin, “Cross-Cultural Representations of Hegemonic Masculinity in Shall we Dance,” Journal of Intercultural Communication, http://www.immi.se/intercultural/nr19/charlebois.htm (accessed June 3, 2014); Light, Richard, “Learning masculinities in a Japanese high school rugby club,” Sport, Education and Society 13: 163-180.

19. Johnston, Eric, “Lessons from when the bubble burst,” Japan Times RSS, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2009/01/06/reference/lessons-from-when-the-bubble-burst/#.U44ECygsDKc (accessed June 3, 2014).

20. Johnston, Eric, “Lessons from when the bubble burst,” Japan Times RSS, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2009/01/06/reference/lessons-from-when-the-bubble-burst/#.U44ECygsDKc (accessed June 3, 2014).

21. Jackson, Jr., Earl, “Borrowing trouble: Oldboy as adaptation and intervention,” Transnational Cinemas 3: 53-65; Asia for Educators, “20th CENTURY: Korea as a Colony of Japan, 1910-1945,” http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/main_pop/kpct/kp_koreaimperialism.htm (accessed June 1, 2014)

22. Jeon, “Residual Selves: Trauma and Forgetting in Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy,” 720.

23. Jeon, Joseph Jonghyun, “Residual Selves: Trauma and Forgetting in Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy,” Positions 17: 713-740.

24. Kim, Kyung Hyun, “Park Chan-wook’s ‘Unknowable’ Oldboy,” In Virtual Hallyu: Korean Cinema of the Global Era, Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

25. Corliss, Richard, “Spike Lee’s ‘Oldboy’: Remaking a Sick Classic,” TIME.com, http://entertainment.time.com/2013/11/27/spike-lees-oldboy-remaking-a-sick-classic/ (accessed May 20, 2014); Puig, Claudia, “‘Oldboy” should have been left alone,” USAToday.com, http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/movies/2013/11/26/old-boy-review/2941359/ (accessed May 20, 2014); Steinberg, Don, “Remakes: Spike Lee and the Oldboy Network,” Wall Street Journal, Nov 22, 2013, Eastern edition; Singer, Matt, “Oldboy,” The Dissolve, http://thedissolve.com/reviews/405-oldboy/ (accessed June 3, 2014).

26. Hendrix, Grady, “Manga’s the rights fit for majors,” Variety, May 29 – June 4, 2006: A8 – A10.

27. Cowen, Tyler, “Why Hollywood Rules the World, and Whether We Should Care,” In Creative Destruction: How Globalization is Changing the World’s Cultures, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Bibliography

Apter, Emily. “On Translation in a Global Market.” Public Culture 13 (2001): 1-12.

Asia for Educators. “20th CENTURY: Korea as a Colony of Japan, 1910-1945.” http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/main_pop/kpct/kp_koreaimperialism.htm (accessed June 1, 2014)

Box Office Mojo. “Oldboy (2005).” Box Office Mojo. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=oldboy.htm (accessed June 1, 2014)

Brady, Terrence J. “Comic Books & Storyboarding.” TMe. http://www.teako170.com/story.html (accessed June 2, 2014).

Charlebois, Justin. “Cross-Cultural Representations of Hegemonic Masculinity in Shall we Dance.” Journal of Intercultural Communication. http://www.immi.se/intercultural/nr19/charlebois.htm (accessed June 3, 2014).

Child, Ben. “Spielberg and Smith plot Oldboy remake.” theguardian.com. http://www.theguardian.com/film/2008/nov/07/spielberg-smith-oldboy-remake (accessed June 1, 2014)

Corliss, Richard. “Spike Lee’s ‘Oldboy’: Remaking a Sick Classic.” TIME.com. http://entertainment.time.com/2013/11/27/spike-lees-oldboy-remaking-a-sick-classic/ (accessed May 20, 2014)

Corrigan, Timothy. “Pens, Pulp, and the Crisis of the Word, 1940-1960.” In Film and Literature: an Introduction and Reader. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Routledge, 1999.

Cowen, Tyler. “Why Hollywood Rules the World, and Whether We Should Care.” In Creative Destruction: How Globalization is Changing the World’s Cultures. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Festival de Cannes. “Grand Prix to ‘Old Boy’ by Park Chan-Wook.” Festival de Cannes. http://www.festival-cannes.com/fr/theDailyArticle/43008.html (accessed June 1, 2014)

Hardawar, Devindra. “Steven Spielberg and Will Smith’s Old Boy is No More.” /Film RSS. http://www.slashfilm.com/steven-spielberg-and-will-smiths-old-boy-is-no-more/ (accessed June 1, 2014)

Hendrix, Grady. “Manga’s the rights fit for majors.” Variety, May 29 – June 4, 2006: A8 – A10.

Hong, Soo Jung, “Three Adaptations of the Japanese Comic Book Boys Over Flowers in the Asian Cultural Community: Analyzing Fidelity and Modification from the Perspective of Globalization and Glocalization,” The Qualitative Report 19 (2014): 1-18.

Jackson, Jr., Earl. “Borrowing trouble: Oldboy as adaptation and intervention.” Transnational Cinemas 3: 53-65.

Jeon, Joseph Jonghyun. “Residual Selves: Trauma and Forgetting in Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy.” Positions 17: 713-740.

Johnston, Eric. “Lessons from when the bubble burst.” Japan Times RSS. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2009/01/06/reference/lessons-from-when-the-bubble-burst/#.U44ECygsDKc (accessed June 3, 2014).

Kim, Kyung Hyun. “Park Chan-wook’s ‘Unknowable’ Oldboy.” In Virtual Hallyu: Korean Cinema of the Global Era. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

Lefèvre, Pascal. “Incompatible Visual Ontologies?: The Problematic Adaptation of Drawn images.” In Film and Comic Books, ed. Ian Gordon. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007.

Light, Richard. “Learning masculinities in a Japanese high school rugby club.” Sport, Education and Society 13: 163-180.

Moran, Albert. “Global Franchising, Local Customizing: The Cultural Economy of TV Program Formats.” Continuum 23 (2009): 115-125

Puig, Claudia. “‘Oldboy” should have been left alone.” USAToday.com. http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/movies/2013/11/26/old-boy-review/2941359/ (accessed May 20, 2014).

Scott, A. O. “You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, but…” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/27/movies/spike-lees-oldboy-starring-josh-brolin.html (accessed May 20, 2014).

Singer, Matt. “Oldboy.” The Dissolve. http://thedissolve.com/reviews/405-oldboy/ (accessed June 3, 2014).

Steinberg, Don. “Remakes: Spike Lee and the Oldboy Network.” Wall Street Journal, Nov 22, 2013, Eastern edition.

Weaver, Tyler. “More Than Storyboards: Comics & Film – On Writing Comics.” http://www.scriptmag.com/features/more-than-storyboards-comics-film-on-writing-comics (accessed June 2, 2014).

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3 thoughts on “Oldboy: A case study in intercultural adaptation theory”

  1. It has come to my attention that there is also a Bollywood remake of Oldboy. I had no idea that was even a thing when I started writing this, but now I NEED to check it out. For comparison’s sake, here’s a link to the hallway fight in that version:

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