Manga Madness: Oldboy (2003)

Oldboy poster featuring Min-sik Choi and Hye-jeong Kang

****½

The world of manga-to-live-action adaptations is a grim one, full of thoughtless cash-ins, overstuffed plots, and writers with little understanding of their source material. It is a place where often mediocrity is the most that can be hoped for, and the live-action companions of well-loved franchises are hidden away by fans hoping to hide the embarrassment of their existence. On occasion, there will be a movie that rises above even the illustrious heights of mediocrity, that not only pleases fans, but attracts new ones from an audience who may never have heard of the source material. Almost unheard of though, is a live-action manga adaptation that is so critically successful that it fully eclipses its manga origins completely. Yes, it’s time to talk about the one true heavy-hitter of manga adaptations, Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy.

If it comes as a surprise that the 2004 Cannes Jury Prize winner was based on a manga, that’s understandable, as the award-winning thriller has continued to hold cultural sway (an English-language remake directed by Spike Lee was released in 2013, ten years after Park’s version) whilst the manga has faded into obscurity. In fact, the manga wasn’t published in English until 2006, eight years after its Japanese release and two years after Park’s film. It hasn’t garnered a wide audience in the time since; at the time of writing, it is out of print.

For those not familiar with the manga, the plot goes like this: at the age of 35, Shinichi Goto is released from a private lock-up facility in Tokyo, where he has been held prisoner for the past ten years. With no idea as to the reasons behind his imprisonment, he is soon contacted by a shady figure from his past who proposes a game: if Goto can discover by himself his enemy’s identity and motivation for imprisoning him, he wins; if he cannot, he loses. And the price for losing is death.

Park’s film is probably better described as a re-imagining than a straight-up adaptation; as well as being relocated to the director’s home country of South Korea, the film shares none of the same characters as the manga, and the solution to the story’s underlying mystery – the reasons behind its protagonist’s incarceration – is changed entirely. While early scenes follow a number of the manga’s plot points, such as Goto/Dae-su testing his fighting ability on a group of youths, meeting a young woman in a sushi restaurant, and tracking down the location of the lock-up through sampling food from every Chinese restaurant in the city named ‘Blue Dragon’, the plot begins to diverge as Dae-su starts to uncover the mystery behind his missing fifteen years.

One of the main reasons behind this divergence is the nature of the protagonist himself. While Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) is far less likeable a lead than Goto, his proclivity for violence and all-consuming desire for vengeance propel the narrative forward at a much faster pace than the manga, allowing Park to get through the material without it feeling rushed like so many films do when adapting manga – a format where stories are most often told on a much larger canvas than in cinema. While this change in pace is necessary for adapting Oldboy to its new medium, it nonetheless has a huge impact on the overall tone of the story. The manga, arguably a simpler story (it has none of the explosive twists of the movie), is told over a total of 79 chapters, released over eight paperback volumes, creating a pace that is slow and thoughtful as Goto spends his time talking his way into his past and attempting to out-manoeuvre his rival. Led by Dae-su’s preference for violence over discussion, and helped by the five-day time limit it imposes, the movie speeds through its two hours at the fast pace expected of a thriller. The reveals are fewer in number and greater in impact, as simplifying Dae-su’s route to find the truth means that each discovery leads directly to a new course of action, rather than hitting dead ends as Goto so often does, hindering the manga narrative’s pace.

The biggest change made to the manga’s story is that of the underlying motive behind its protagonist’s imprisonment, and here, unlike in so many adaptations, it is clear that the changes Park and his fellow writers have made are undoubtedly to the benefit of the story. Though the film’s climax and the twists it contains are much darker than that of the source material, they also much more satisfying. The manga’s finale is ultimately anticlimactic; the film’s is explosive.

There is a reason Oldboy is remembered as a film rather than a manga, and within that reason lies a multitude of lessons for filmmakers looking to adapt a manga property into live-action. Lessons, it isn’t hard to conclude, which have been ignored. Rather than choosing stories that lend themselves to live-action, studios continue to choose projects that have an in-built audience, overlooking how so many series’ have gained popularity as manga or anime because their stories are so intrinsically suited for that medium. Filmmakers stray too far from the essence of their source material, else they stick too rigidly to it to allow the narrative to flourish within the constraints and the freedoms of live-action cinema. For fans so used to being let down by live-action adaptations, it can be too easy to say that manga simply doesn’t translate to this medium, but Oldboy shows clearly that the problem has never been with the medium itself, but with the filmmakers and studios too cowardly to exploit its potential.

Oldboy is available now on DVD and Blu-Ray.