Full of gruesome acts of revenge and dirty family secrets, the film is a sick extravaganza comparable to recent efforts by Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) and Danny Boyle (Trance), but it's a more controlled work than either. The directorial curlicues don't feel random—indeed, the film has a sustained, streamlined momentum that feels unlike much else in Lee's body of work. The Brooklyn-based director has never lacked for energy or imagination, but his movies tend to be all over the place in terms of what they want to say and do. To see him working with such focus is striking. If the movie is just an exercise, then at least it's a purposeful one. Lee's trying new things here, working in a different register than he normally does.
Perhaps it's more than an exercise. Lee talked for years about remaking Chan-wook Park's Grand Guignol thriller, one of the most internationally successful films of the so-called South Korean new wave. In none of the interviews I've read in which Lee discusses the film (which have been only a handful, admittedly) does he explain what drew him to the material. If I had to guess, though, he probably felt a certain admiration for Park. The original Oldboy is a triumph of directorial style, recalling such expressionist classics as The Last Laugh or Spies in the totality of its storyteller's vision. The elaborate pulp storyline, which hinges on absurd double crosses carried out over many years, registers as ornate, even classical. Many critics used the term "Jacobean" to describe the revenge narrative, and one might invoke the Oedipus myth as well. That Oldboy is widely appreciated as serious art and not as an exploitation movie is something of a testament to the art of film direction.
I can see plenty of moviemakers (not just Lee) experiencing a shameful sense of kinship with the villain of Park's film. His revenge on the antihero involves overseeing every minute of his life for decades—it's like a comic exaggeration of a certain type of film director's impulse to control all aspects of the world he or she inhabits. Lee, for better and for worse, is one of those directors. You can feel it in the distinctive pulse of his editing and in his use of music to define the exact emotional tenor of a scene.
As with Park, Lee's movies contain little in the way of downtime. This stems as much from his creative energy as from his restless interest in current events (the Oldboy remake feels most distinctly like Lee's work when it incorporates images from TV news). The director's insistence on keeping things topical can have an exhilarating effect, as though the movie were about to leap off the screen and into real life. (Park achieves a similar effect when he switches from pulp-storytelling mode to one of acute psychological realism—it's one of the most impressive tricks in his bag.) Yet the sense of urgency that informs Lee's best films (Do the Right Thing, When the Levees Broke) can also work against him. For one thing, he often seems too impatient to grant sympathetic imagination to characters he dislikes. Lee may be one of our country's most sensitive filmmakers when it comes to portraying the disenfranchised, but when it comes to portraying people in power, his movies can feel broad, reductive, or juvenile. I'm thinking of Tim Robbins's scenes in Jungle Fever, the distorted-view section of Crooklyn, the TV executives in Bamboozled, and the corporate-malfeasance subplot of She Hate Me (if not the entire film).
The main characters of Oldboy are a couple of rich bullies who are perfectly OK with ignoring the rest of the world in order to pursue what they want. In this regard, they're like villains in a Spike Lee movie—specifically, the offscreen villains of Right Thing, Get on the Bus, 25th Hour, and Levees, those people in power whose greed and indifference to suffering are the cause of so much social strife in America. Oldboy's elemental revenge plot serves Lee well, I think. Larger than life and totally depraved, it speaks to a concept of power that underlies much of his work.