film / politics / Pop Culture

Whitewashing the Silver Screen

I spent part of the weekend watching the 2003 Korean film Oldboy, a masterpiece of visceral gore and a chilling, unforgettable exploration of the depth of human nature’s darkness. It was the kind of film that left me with shivers for days afterward. Its iconic images are known even to those who have never seen it in its entirety—the main character eating a live octopus as its tentacles stick to his cheeks, for example.

The darkness of its blood-spattered vengeance is sublime—that is, awe-inspiring. No wonder Quentin Tarantino was such a fan at Cannes.


So why, a mere ten years later, do we need a white remake of this awesome movie?

In the world of art, there are few things more pathetic than copying verbatim a story that stands on its own as a crowning achievement in good storytelling. Maybe it’s not pathetic—I don’t know Spike Lee’s mind. He might think of it as some great act of homage…? But such copying is certainly BORING as hell. It’s lazy. The world is full of good stories, the true ones stranger than the fictional. Why does Spike Lee have to crib from a film barely a decade old? If the previews can be trusted, he copies some things shot for shot. That’s not homage, and that’s not reinvention, it’s purely derivative—a pointless and bland copy of a powerful and dark original. Is the film industry such a slave to money that it can’t be bothered to do its homework and advance something actually artful? (I mean, yes. I’ve touched on this in discussions of superhero movies. I guess I ask the question more to point out how sad this is…)


Josh Brolin as the main character in the 2013 remake

The tragedy here is that this film will undoubtedly be pretty good, based on the strength of its source material and the genuine talent of its actors (Josh Brolin seems particularly well-cast for the tormented central character, Oh Dae-Su). But this very success will leave its Korean predecessor in the dust, forgotten, in the name of making a quick buck off of an underexposed American audience. The original is on Netflix, people! Someone typed up the subtitles for you already.

Whitewashing has a long and checkered history in pop culture, cropping up in our supposedly racially enlightened age in terrible movies like the live-action Avatar the Last Airbender and in ludicrous films like The Last Samurai. Tom Cruise is somehow a better samurai than real samurai after training for a couple of months? All the Japanese ladies fall for him and he alone survives a battle of whizzing bullets unscathed, while the Japanese characters die? Come on.

Few things in pop culture make me angrier than this practice of whitewashing, especially because it seems so pointless. Are we really so uncultured that we can’t stomach an hour of subtitles? If you’re not patient enough to read for part of a film, you probably won’t get the movie anyway, so why bother even watching the English remake?

I will reserve my fullest judgment until I have seen the remake. Maybe Spike Lee has some ace up his sleeve. I really hope so, because otherwise he will be participating in a sad history of retelling, copying, and whitewashing. I’d like to believe that a cast and crew as respected as the one attached to this film could do better than that.

In the meantime, watch Oldboy (2003), available on Netflix. You won’t be disappointed.



One thought on “Whitewashing the Silver Screen

  1. The Last Samurai was SOOOO bad and a painful example of classic Hollywood whitewashing in that ‘the last true samurai’ was a white dude. Barf.
    I’m afraid to see what Hollywood has done with 47 Ronin starring Keanu Reeves.

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