x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Elizabeth Olsen and Josh Brolin discuss the new Oldboy

Spike Lee, Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Olsen talk to us about their new film Oldboy, a remake of the acclaimed South Korean film.

osh Brolin in a scene from Oldboy. AP
osh Brolin in a scene from Oldboy. AP

“I do think there’s no point to remaking it, if you’re going to hold back,” says Elizabeth Olsen, one of the stars of Spike Lee’s new film Oldboy. If you’re a fan of the original, this probably means you’re breathing a sigh of relief right now. Directed by Park Chan-wook, this violent tale of retribution and revenge became a sensation of the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, where it claimed the Grand Jury Prize and announced the South Korean as a new force in world cinema.

If the Hollywood remake was inevitable, the surprise is that it’s not being directed by Quentin Tarantino — who was head of the jury in Cannes that year and a huge champion of it. Rather, it’s Spike Lee, who has only occasionally dipped into genre territory with films like The 25th Hour and Inside Man. But it was his lead actor that led the way. “Josh Brolin got the blessing for it,” says Lee. “Even before Josh Brolin signed onto the lead, he got the blessing from Park.”

Overwhelming role

Brolin, the Oscar-nominated actor from Milk, was a big fan of the original — and has known the South Korean for several years. “I almost got him to do Jonah Hex, which would’ve been wonderful,” he says, referring to his much-maligned 2010 comic book western that certainly would’ve benefited from Park’s assured touch.

Following the original’s premise fairly closely, Brolin plays the advertising executive Joe Doucett, who is kidnapped and locked in solitary confinement for two decades — then released without knowing why he faced this horrifying ordeal. For Brolin, taking this on was unlike anything he’d ever faced. “Oldboy was so overwhelming the whole time,” he says. “I could really only focus on what I was doing.”

In particular, he and Lee “elongated” the incarceration scenes from the original. “Spike would just put an 11-minute magazine of film in and then he’d say ‘You’ve been in prison for nine years now. Go. Just be. Take off your clothes. Don’t take off your clothes. Crawl under the mattress. Sing a song. Drink a drink. Do push-ups. Stick your head in the toilet.’ Anything went. And it was like that for weeks, so after a while you start to get a bit loopy.”

Dark days

Playing the man behind Doucett’s capture is the South African actor Sharlto Copley, who calls his character Adrian Pryce “the twisted dude”. Remarkably, given his last film saw him playing the psychotic mercenary in Elysium, he calls this “the darkest thing I’ve ever done in my life” — which is saying something. “That’s it for me with villains for a while,” he says. “I’m not sure I’m ever going to go that dark again.”

At least working on such gloomy material was tempered by the working relationship he formed with Lee — “probably the warmest-hearted director I’ve worked with” — even if it left him confused. “I was like ‘Why am I working with such light people on such dark material?’ But I figured while I had a story like this, to go through as dramatic a range as they’ll let me, then I’m going to take it.”

Remake debate

The question remains, does Oldboy warrant an English-language remake? “I think so,” nods Olsen, who plays Marie, a girl who helps Docuett in his quest to unravel the maddening enigma of why he was kidnapped. “There are so many people that haven’t seen it. A lot of people [in America] don’t see foreign films.”

Samuel L Jackson, who plays the mysterious Mohawk-sporting character Chaney, simply sighs. “Sometimes you ask yourself, why don’t they figure out a way to make the American public more aware of the original movie. But a lot of people don’t like to read [subtitled] movies.” At least the film reunited Jackson with Lee, with whom he hasn’t worked with for more than twenty years — their last time being 1991’s prize-winning Jungle Fever.

Scripted by Mark Protosevich, who also co-wrote the screenplay for another remake, I Am Legend, the famously tight-lipped Lee is calling his version a “reinterpretation”. So how is his going to differ from Park’s film? “It’s going to be different. It’s not going to be in Korean,” he says, dryly. And why take on this epic story of vengeance?

“Because a lot of people are going to get it!”

• Oldboy is out now in UAE cinemas

artslife@thenational.ae