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Oldboy and the South Korean New Wave Cinema: An Interview With Author Urban Waite

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Spike Lee's recently released Oldboy is a remake of a 2003 Korean film of the same name. Court Haslett, writer of the crime novel Tenderloin, spoke with New York Times bestselling author, and South Korean film aficionado, Urban Waite about the original Oldboy, what makes Korean crime movies so compelling and having his book, The Terror of Living, turned into a movie.

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Court: When I first heard that Spike Lee was remaking Oldboy, I was more than a little surprised. The original is such a bizarre, disturbing movie. Are you surprised it was remade for American audiences?

Urban: I agree with you that OldBoy is one messed up, violent film. But, to me, the progression of character from one place to another is the truly fascinating aspect of this film. Essentially, the main character is broken early into a hundred jagged pieces, and as he struggles to put himself back together, he bloodies himself even more along the way.

I'm not that stunned to see an American remake, especially not by Spike Lee. For the most part, I feel like what we produce here in the States is all a bit safe. The films coming out of Korea push the envelope to the point of tearing. They are something fresh and new, like Scorsese's Taxi Driver, the Coen brothers' movies and the films of Spike Lee.

Oldboy is just one of the many great films of the Korean New Wave Cinema. How did you become interested in this genre?

To be honest, I didn't even know there was a term for it when I started watching Korean films. I just knew there were a bunch of really good films coming out of South Korea. It was only after I started watching the movies that I found the term on some film forum.

Given their diversity, I'm not sure that putting a label on these movies is all that helpful anyway.

I agree. The term New Wave is a broad definition, used as a way to differentiate the old style of Korean films of the 80s and 90s, from the newer movies that started to appear in the early 2000s. The cinematography, writing, directing and acting in the latter movies all stepped up several levels from their predecessors. In short, they felt like movies -- where before they didn't seem to strive for such great heights. Needless to say, I'm pretty happy with the way things have gone.

One of the things I like about these movies is their unpredictability. In American films, there are certain characters that will never die, and certain lines that will never be crossed. That is not the case here. For instance, in The Host, one of the seminal New Wave films, a character dies that would never die in an American movie. I wonder if some of what we are responding to is this element of surprise?

Definitely. I'm sure the filmmaker of The Host was aware of what he was doing when he got to that scene, and fully aware of how that would effect the emotions of the audience. It's an amazing movie. There is a kind of happy ending to that film, but it's not the conventional ending you might expect. It's a sort of glass half empty kind of thing. I really love the way they pulled that off. It's something I'm usually looking for in the writing I love.

One thematic similarity in many of these movies is revenge, which has been a staple of great crime movies since the beginning. Yet these movies often thwart our assumptions about how that revenge will play out.

With revenge--as we've talked a bit about in OldBoy -- there are unintended consequences. I hate books or movies that somehow manage to wrap everything up in a box and put a perfect bow on it. Writing like that makes no sense to me. Just think about how horrible a movie OldBoy would have been without the climactic scene, as awful as it was.

The novels and movies that I really care about reflect real life, or at least a life slightly skewed. Life is messy. Everyday I go around making choices that affect other people, and really don't have a clue to what extent. That's the real beauty of storytelling: you get to see those effects.

Other than Oldboy, what are some other of your favorites?

Funny you should ask. I'm in Guam right now, trying to put together the beginnings of what will hopefully be my fourth novel. I know a total of two people on the entire island, and with this in mind, I knew a fair amount of my time would be spent alone. For my breaks I brought six movies that I come back to quite a bit in my writing: Unforgiven, No Country for Old Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Good Will Hunting, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Heat. Like most of the crime writing I do, these movies are basically about a single character facing insurmountable odds. Sometimes winning, but often failing.

I would have brought along a couple of the Korean movies with me if I could find them anywhere but Netflix, Memories of Murder and A Dirty Carnival, both come directly to mind.

The Terror of Living is definitely cinematic. I think I read that it got optioned for a movie. Any update on that?

Yes, the strangest coincidence just happened. After I received this question from you, I emailed the filmmaker Mark Tonderai, who wrote the screenplay for the Terror film and is set to direct, and I asked him for some sort of update. What he came back with was that Doug Davison, who just produced the American version of OldBoy with Spike Lee, is the producer for The Terror of Living film!

After all the things we've brought up in this interview I really couldn't be happier about that piece of news. I tend not to ask for details but in this case I'm glad I did. It seems like between Mark and Doug, I've got my dream team for this film.

That's an unbelievable coincidence. Congrats. Mind telling us a little about the next novel? Does it take place in Guam, or are you just there to focus on writing?

To start novels, I usually find a place to go so I can work for a few weeks with only the novel on my mind. For Terror, that place was Vermont in the winter. For The Carrion Birds, it was two back-to-back literary conferences in England and Tennessee. For The End of the Rainbow, which will be released in the fall of 2014, it was a cabin in Georgia. For this one, it's Guam.

At the moment there is no connection to Guam in the novel, but the main character I'm focusing on is an Olympic boxer. He tends to do a lot of travel, so there's always the chance. The main focus of the novel isn't really on boxing, though. It's more about what those around this character expect of him. His girlfriend, his son, his family, his friends and also the trainers and other fighters who work with him. In its barest form it's about what extreme pressure does to the individual.

At least I hope it will be. Like I said, I'm only about thirty pages into it!

Well, I'm hooked already. Thanks for talking to me and thanks for introducing me to these movies. I'm definitely hooked on those as well.

Not a problem. I could talk film all day long. Thanks for all the great questions.

Court Haslett is the author of Tenderloin, a crime novel set in 1970s San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter: @courthaslett, and at The Rogue Reader.