“My Name, Oh Dae-Su, means getting through one day at a time. That’s what “Oh Dae-Su” means. But, God… Why can’t I get through today?”
By Michael Cunningham
What you are about to read is my interpretation of the movie Oldboy. If you haven’t watched it yet then please do, it’s one of the best movies ever made. But be warned: it’s not for weak stomachs.
Quick synopsis: the film follows Oh Dae-Su who is released into the world after being locked up for 15 years for no apparent reason by an unknown captor. This is a revenge film which obliterates any that came before it, except maybe The Count of Monte Cristo. The movie holds a 80% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes out of 127 reviews and Roger Ebert called it ‘a powerful film not because of what it depicts, but because of the depths of the human heart which is strips bare.’ Spike Lee is also planning on making a joint out of it, so be sure to watch it before he does. This interpretation came to me like a vision after I had watched the film and struggled to fall asleep. Shuffling around in bed I was reflecting on the final scene in the snow, and was wondering why the lady was touched by the words ‘Even though I’m no better than a beast, don’t I have the right to live?’ written on Oh Dae-Su’s letter. Then it hit me, BAM, right in the face! I rushed to wake my cousin up, who I had watched it with, but he was dead. So I started writing frantically, desperate to catch my train of thought before it left the station. What follows is the interpretation…
These two images provide the biggest clue to the meaning behind Oldboy.
The revenge masterpiece starts with Oh Dae-Su on a rooftop, hanging tightly onto a man’s tie while he’s teetering off the edge of the building, the man is terrified as Oh Dae-Su glares at him menacingly saying ‘I want to tell you my story’. The fact that of all scenes, the movie began with this one is very important for unraveling the hidden meaning behind the events that follow. After this scene Oh Dae-Su is eventually kidnapped and kept hostage in a hotel room for 15 years, a disturbing painting of a man neither smiling nor weeping -but both at the same time (a face that Oh Dae-Su makes directly after looking at the painting, and at the very end when he reunites with his daughter/lover in the snow) – appears on the wall, inscribed on it: “Laugh, and the world laughs with you. Weep, and you weep alone.” After the movie shows 15 years pass through events that transpire on his television, Oh Dae-Su wakes up inside a briefcase on a rooftop, it is here that he meets the man with a white puppy. The man is about to kill himself, but Oh Dae-Su wants to tell him his story before he does, so he catches the man by the tie and hangs onto him before he has a chance to plummet to his death. The man weeps to Oh Dae-Su “Mister, even though I’m no better than a beast, don’t I have the right to live?”. Oh Dae-Su pauses, and very slowly repeats what the man just said, as if the words held some significance to him.
Oh Dae-Su tells the man his story, which is presumably one of being contained and locked up for 15 years. Afterwards the man, empathising with Oh Dae-Su’s story, nods slowly and says ‘I see”, he then wants to tell O Dae-Su his own story, but Oh Dae quickly storms off and when he reaches the street the man crashes from the sky into a car. This scene has strong parallels with a couple of scenes at the very end of the movie, and forms the basis for the interpretation. The rest of the movie follows Oh Dae-Su’s pursuit to find the man that imprisoned him and why. He finally finds out that it was a man called Lee Woo-jin. This man had a love affair with his sister at a young age, Oh Dae-Su finds out about it and spreads the word to everyone in school, which leads to Lee Woo-jin’s sister and lover committing suicide. A flashback scene shows Lee Woo-jin holding her by the hand as she hangs off a bridge, before letting her fall to her death below. This traumatic experience leads Lee Woo-jin to blame Oh Dae-Su, which forms the motive for why he imprisoned him for 15 years. To add to the revenge, he hypnotises both him and his daughter (who he hasn’t seen since she was a little girl as he’s been imprisoned so long) to fall in love. Eventually Lee Woo-jin reveals this secret to Oh Dae-Su. A perfectly ironic revenge plot considering Lee’s affair with his own sister. The whole movie has you rooting for Oh Dae-Su, wanting to see him exact revenge on his captor, but the ending switches the roles around to reveal, that he was in fact living out someone else’s revenge the entire time. However, something didn’t quite gel with me. Lee Woo-jin’s intricate plan of revenge seemed way too extreme to dish out on someone such as Oh Dae-Su, who was guilty of nothing except behaving like any teenage boy would have done in his circumstances.
Upon finding out that the woman he fell in love with was actually his daughter, Oh Dae-Su seeks the help of the hypnotist that helped hatch the entire plot against him. He writes a letter to her saying ‘this has been my story so far’. The woman meets him in the snow and expresses that she didn’t feel the need to help him, but was touched by a certain line in his letter: ‘Even though I’m no better than a beast, don’t I have the right to live?’. She then warns him that the hypnotism might go wrong and ‘distort’ his memories. She says to him: ‘look at that tree… It’s slowly changing into a concrete pillar. You’re now inside Lee Woo-jin’s penthouse. It’s a dreary night. The sound of your footsteps crossing to the window fills the room. When I ring my bell you’ll split into two people. One person doesn’t know your secret: Oh Dae-Su. The one who knows your secret is the monster. When I ring the bell againthe monster will turn around and start walking. With each step he will age by one year. When he reaches 70, the monster will die. There’s no need to worry. It will be a very peaceful death. Now, good luck to you.
There are a lot of parallels here, for starters the every step is one year is alluded in an earlier scene when Oh Dae-Su pulls out a man’s (who he believed to be his captor) teeth, saying every tooth I pull is one year of my life I’ve lost to you, also Oh Dae-Su reveals that his name means “getting through one day at a time”. The man on the rooftop says the exact same thing that Oh Dae-Su writes in the letter, he also has a white dog, which parallels Oh Dae-Su barking like a dog to Lee Woo-jin to stop him from telling his daughter the truth about their relationship. Finally, the man being held by the tie before plunging to his suicidal death resembles Lee Woo-jin holding his sister’s hand while she’s hanging over the bridge. Oh Dae-Su refers to himself as a ‘monster’ (above image) and even walks into a sushi shop and asks to ‘eat something alive’, this is something that monsters typically do. He then eats a live octopus, it’s tentacles attacking his face as he bites into it, afterwards he passes out. This monster has walked it’s 70 steps it seems. If you haven’t caught onto my explosive theory yet I’ll paint it out now: The man on the rooftop about to kill himself is the real Lee Woo-jin, and Oh Dae-Su is his haunted memory, his monster. This is evidenced by Oh Dae-Su’s first encounter with Lee Woo-jin, his captor.Oh Dae-Su grabs him by the throat, but his captor’s white haired side kick (the white dog?) intercepts him, Lee Woo-Jin says to Oh Dae: ‘Wow, you’re strong, Mr. Monster. Yes, you are the monster that I created’.
It is clear as sky now that Oh Dae-Su is Lee Woo-jin’s repressed memory of his past, which is why he has imprisoned him for 15 years, in the cell of his own mind.Oh Dae-Su is his monster, that he has created. This explains why the ‘revenge’ that Lee Woo-jin enacted on Oh Dae-su was so harsh and didn’t fit his crime, because when we are deeply depressed we like to torture ourselves, even if it’s completely irrational and we don’t deserve to suffer for it. That’s it. I’ll need to watch it a second time so I can flesh it out some more, but that is what I believe to be the ultimate interpretation of Oldboy.
Please share your opinions of my interpretation, and any interpretations you have as well!
If you liked this post, be sure to subscribe!
Last time, we began examining the 2003 South Korean movie Oldboy, directed by Park Chan-wook and adapted from the 1996-1998 manga by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi. We just got to the movie’s big twist ending. So be warned: spoilers follow, not only for the 2003 film but presumably also for this week’s American remake.
The Plot in Retrospect
Oh Dae-su’s abduction occurred on his daughter’s birthday. The first time we see the film, we’re likely to think that this is an easy way to help establish that he has a daughter. But upon more careful analysis, it’s also a hint at Lee Woo-jin’s plans. In fact, later in the film, Lee Woo-jin uses 5 July — which we find out is the anniversary of his sister’s death — as a deadline for Oh Dae-su, and the film’s climax occurs on this day. Isn’t it likely that a man predisposed to use anniversaries in this manner would have chosen a special day for the abduction, one that somehow fit into his master plan?
When they meet, Oh Dae-su and Mido both think the other looks familiar. This is dismissed when Oh Dae-su recalls that, in her capacity as a sushi chef, she was once featured on a low-rated TV show. The matter’s dropped, but it’s not hard to notice that this wouldn’t explain why she would think he looks familiar too.
After they have sex, Oh Dae-su narrates that he’s “grateful for all those years spent in that prison.” It’s a shocking moment, but we’ve already seen that Oh Dae-su has changed, that he’s not the same man he was 15 years before. It’s a self-conscious moment of which most other revenge-story protagonists aren’t capable. (Presumably, their writers and directors believe such a moment would lessen their character’s anger and thus the revenge plot.) But Oh Dae-su continues: “If I was the old Oh Dae-su, would Mido still have liked me?” Of course, he means “liked” romantically. Upon first viewing, the answer to Oh Dae-su’s question is no, because he was a different man back then. After we know the truth, the answer is still no, but now because he’s her father.
Shortly after, Lee Woo-jin has the couple’s room flooded with gas (presumably the same gas used in the prison). He enters, wearing a gasmask, and caresses Mido’s side and torso with a single finger while they sleep. The first time through, it’s just a very creepy scene, although it’s somewhat justified from a narrative perspective because Lee Woo-jin is also there to leave a box for the couple, which contains the hand of the man who runs the prison at which Oh Dae-su was incarcerated. Oh Dae-su threatened to take it, and it’s presumably a gift from Lee Woo-jin. After we know the truth, however, we understand that Lee Woo-jin sees the naked couple lying together and understands what they don’t: that this is incest and that he has already won. It’s a victory caress he gives Mido, perhaps while recalling his own departed sister, who was about the same age when she died. Perhaps that’s why Lee Woo-jin leaves Oh Dae-su this gift — as a reward for committing incest.
In prison, Oh Dae-su memorably hallucinates ants crawling on him — and inside him, emerging through his skin. Mido talks with him about it and, having read his diary, asks if he still hallucinates ants. She says it’s what lonely people hallucinate, since ants are such social animals. It’s an odd moment. She adds that she doesn’t see ants, but we immediately see that she’s lying: a shot shows us another memorable scene, one of a crying Mido hallucinating a human-sized ant on a subway. Upon first viewing, this just seems strange, given how unlikely it is. But it’s possible that father and son share the same inherited psychological ailment. And it’s telling the he hallucinates normal-sized ants, while she hallucinates a human-sized one… like a kid might, if she misses her father. His ants swarm him, but her ant sits on the other end of the train, keeping his distance the way her father has.
It’s not the only trait father and daughter have in common. Lee Woo-jin explains that his plan was facilitated by the couple’s susceptibility to hypnotic suggestion. Presumably, this is inherited, along with a predisposition for hallucinating ants.
Then there are the weird coincidences. While incarcerated, Oh Dae-su hears a TV report of a bridge collapse, echoing how Lee Woo-jin committed suicide. When he emerges from the trunk, Oh Dae-su is on a roof where a man is planning to jump to his death. Oh Dae-su saves him, holding onto the man’s tie. In fact, this is the very first shot of the movie, and it closely echoes how Lee Woo-jin’s sister committed suicide, holding onto his hand — which we see at the end of the movie’s climax. It’s possible Lee Woo-jin had this man hypnotized to be there at this time, but there’s no textual support for this in the actual film. It remains an odd coincidence, part of the fabric of the movie’s universe, which seems to subtly echo with certain themes, images, or ideas.
Then there’s the fact that Mido says that she’s not ready to have sex with Oh Dae-su and will sing a song, mentioned in his journals, when she’s ready. She says that when she does, he should take her — even if she protests. It’s not the only uncomfortable gender moment. But it also oddly recalls the idea of hypnotic suggestion: she won’t tell him she wants sex, but will instead give a physic trigger, taken from his past, to prompt an action.
Has her own hypnotic programming caused her to act this way, perhaps because she’s unconsciously accustomed to psychic triggers? Was the song part of his psychic programming in prison? Or is there something deeper at work here, like a suggestion that all romance tends to work by way of songs, touches, and other psychic triggers?
By the way, we later learn that song is titled “The Face I Want to See.” It includes these lines: “As I shed my sad tears / You’re the face that I miss.” Of course, the song’s probably about a lover, but in Mido’s case, it could also be about a father figure. While she sings this, weeping from recently being held prisoner, we see Lee Woo-jin’s penthouse for the first time, as he and his closest staff listen to live audio from the car. They seem focused, though we can’t figure out why. Of course, it’s because this is the point of their machinations: to get this couple to fall in love.
Revenge, hypnotism, and incest: these are the ingredients of Oldboy’s plot.
The Joker’s elaborate schemes in The Dark Knight have nothing on what we see in 2003′s Oldboy, where the revenge scheme is played out over perhaps 25 years and involves hypnotism, incarcerating someone for 15 years against his will, and concocting a plan to force him to commit incest.
Truth and Oedipus
After Oh Dae-su finds out the truth, he attacks impulsively, out of anger, and Lee Woo-jin’s henchman (the white-haired Mr. Han) slams Oh Dae-su brutally through one piece of glass after another. Besides being beautiful, the shattering glass is, of course, symbolic of Oh Dae-su’s life and psyche. The final piece of glass is an outer window of Lee Woo-jin’s penthouse, which Lee Woo-jin’s goon throws Oh Dae-su into, in a brutal shot (that’s more brutal for its muted sound). The window cracks, then collapses, drowning Oh Dae-su in shards.
Soon, Oh Dae-su turns to begging. He admits he’s in the wrong. He sings his and Lee Woo-jin’s old high-school anthem — a brilliant choice that underlines the resonance of how this story all goes back to school-day traumas. As Lee Woo-jin stands still and laughs, Oh Dae-su barks like a dog, pretends to wag his tail, and even licks Lee Woo-jin’s shoe. He does anything he can to humiliate himself. He’s frantic and flailing. Here, he is a father, for the first time in the film. He is begging not for his daughter’s life but to preserve her innocence, to keep Lee Woo-jin from revealing to Mido what he’s already revealed to her father.
Earlier, as Oh Dae-su left for this final confrontation, Mido said she’ll pray that Lee Woo-jin supplicates himself before Oh Dae-su and begs forgiveness. Her prayer isn’t answered. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. The villain has won.
Oh Dae-su’s desperate attempts to find something — anything — that will keep Lee Woo-jin from revealing the truth to Mido culminate in Oh Dae-su spontaneously cutting out his own tongue.
Of course, Oh Dae-su is trying to appease Lee Woo-jin with this act. Lee Woo-jin thinks Oh Dae-su is guilty of talking out of turn, so this might seem like a dramatic way to give Lee Woo-jin what he wants. And that’s certainly true, at least to some degree. However, Oh Dae-su’s demeanor is manic, like that of an insane man. He certainly doesn’t seem like he’s contemplating the best strategy. He’s an impulsive man, and this is the culmination of a wild, spontaneous display of masochism.
There is something here of Oedipus, gouging out his own eyes (in Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex) upon learning that his wife is his own mother. It’s as if Oh Dae-su has snapped, shattered like all that glass, and this energy must be vented against the offending body parts: the eyes of Oedipus, representing his “seeing” (or having failed to see) the truth, and the tongue of Oh Dae-su, which indirectly killed Lee Woo-jin’s sister.
It’s a Dante-esque punishment for someone whose crime is starting a rumor.
In fact, there’s good reason to believe that this dramatic gesture isn’t simply to appease Lee Woo-jin. It would seem that, depending on the moment, Oh Dae-su actually means it when he says that he was in the wrong. Or at least, the film doesn’t find him as innocent as we might, given our tendency to identify with protagonists and forgive their flaws.
When he returns to the prison, Oh Dae-su gets a cassette tape, on which the man who arranged to have him sent there will only explain that Oh Dae-su “talks too much.” Not long after it’s first played, this audio clip is replayed, and Oh Dae-su soon asks his friend if it was true. Oh Dae-su looks sad when he does this, clearly giving the impression that the Oh Dae-su who went into prison is a different man than the one who came out. His friend changes the subject, which seems to confirm that Oh Dae-su did “talk too much.” And when we see the young Oh Dae-su in flashback, he’s a punk, writing a farewell insult on his classroom chalkboard and spying on an incestuous scene. In fact, one of the first things we see Oh Dae-su do is mouth off to cops. Even when he’s begging in the climax to keep Mido ignorant, Oh Dae-su can’t keep from interspersing threats. So he cuts out his own tongue.
Here, pragmatics intersect with self-condemnation. Oh Dae-su can’t control his tongue, even now, and so removing it might be an attempt to influence Lee Woo-jin, but it’s also an admission that Lee Woo-jin was right: Oh Dae-su can’t control his tongue.
Perhaps Oh Dae-su was punished for the slightest of infractions, for a single statement to a friend. But perhaps that little offense suggests something greater: that a certain type of personality is likely to commit this particular kind of minor infraction. Of course, not everyone who inadvertently (or even deliberately) starts a rumor is a cavalier punk. But perhaps, people who do such things disproportionately are, and that’s true in Oh Dae-su’s case. His crime is minor, but it’s the tip of a vast iceberg.
Not only is the villain victorious, but the movie suggests he was right — perhaps not in his revenge, but certainly in his assessment of the story’s main character.
Lee Woo-jin orders that Mido be spared the truth. He doesn’t need to destroy her. He’s already won more severely than he could have imagined.
Then, in a brilliant moment, Lee Woo-jin asks, “Now, what will I live for?” He embraces Oh Dae-su and levels his gun at Oh Dae-su’s head, where the bullet will kill them both together, almost as if they are lovers, or as if their revenge were as strong a bond. In a beautiful shot, the camera rotates around 180 degrees (considered a no-no in cinema circles), and we see that Oh Dae-su not only knows the gun is there but welcomes death.
Lee Woo-jin doesn’t fire. Instead, he gets up and walks away. As he does, he drops the remote control that he earlier said would turn off his pacemaker, killing him. At the time, that seemed like a rather unbelievable plot device. Now, the movie redeems that earlier moment: when Oh Dae-su gets the remote control, it turns out to be a fancy remote for Lee Woo-jin’s tape player. It was all a bluff. Instead of killing Lee Woo-jin, Oh Dae-su has turned on a recording of himself and Mido having sex, which only torments Oh Dae-su further. Everything Oh Dae-su does double backs upon him.
In a brilliant sequence, Lee Woo-jin kills himself as he remembers his sister’s death. The villain in the manga kills himself too. But in the film, one suicide is intertwined with the other — as if Lee Woo-jin has lived all these years only to take revenge, and now that this has been accomplished, he can follow his sister. Here too, the movie retains an aspect of the manga but improves upon it.
In the movie’s brilliant conclusion, Oh Dae-su has tracked down the hypnotist Lee Woo-jin used, who we briefly saw during the prison sequence, and whom Woo-jin has subsequently mentioned by name when explaining how he hypnotized Oh Dae-su and Mido. He wants to forget that Mido is his daughter. He’s kept the truth from her, but he can’t keep it from himself. She can’t guarantee success but hypnotizes him anyway.
He wakes up alone, soon joined by Mido. Lest we think the hypnotist wasn’t there at all, Mido points out another set of footprints in the snow. The two embrace, and Oh Dae-su seems to smile.
Is it a pained smile? Does it shift at the end? Does he still remember that Mido is his daughter, or does this truth return to him? The ending is deliberately ambiguous, although what we see — a loving embrace and a smile, albeit with ambiguities — certainly suggests he’s forgotten.
It’s a rather brilliant ending. But what’s most remarkable about it is that someone would wish to return to a relationship one knew to be incestuous.
There’s a lot of talk in the film about how Oh Dae-su has changed. On the surface, this is a reference to the effect of 15 years as a prisoner. But by the end, it’s also about the effect of hypnosis and his experiences during the film. He’s fallen in love, and whether it’s the product of hypnosis or not, it’s real. It’s felt. This is the new Oh Dae-su, who’s finally sacrificed for someone else.
Still, the choice to forget the truth is a shocking one. It’s emotionally right, but it’s a total repudiation of the character’s aims throughout the film.
The movie starts as a revenge film. But it ends up being Lee Woo-jin who gets revenge.
We actually learn that Oh Dae-su isn’t primarily after revenge about halfway through the film. He seems to have Lee Woo-jin at his mercy, and it’s here that Woo-jin reveals a large scar for what must be a rather old-fashioned pacemaker. Woo-jin then reveals the remote control he says can stop his heart. If Oh Dae-su strikes, he’ll never learn the truth. Lee Woo-jin treats the dilemma as if it’s little more than an interesting experiment: is revenge or the truth more important to Oh Dae-su? Oh Dae-su decides on the truth.
Of course, the remote control was only a bluff, and the truth Oh Dae-su seeks destroys him.
This recalls Oedipus, who so relentlessly pursues the truth in Oedipus Rex, only to be broken when he learns it.
By the end of the movie, once the villain has gotten his revenge instead of the hero, Oh Dae-su — having already shifted from revenge to the truth — shifts again. Now, he’ll go to great means to escape the truth.
That’s the only way that he can be with the woman he’s been made to love. Love beats the truth.
Although Oh Dae-su probably doesn’t think of it, it’s also the only way to eek out a victory of sorts over Lee Woo-jin. The villain succeeded in transmitting his incest meme: Oh Dae-su now knows what it’s like to be in love with a female relative and to fear for her, and this leads him to cut out his own tongue. He’s suffered, as Lee Woo-jin has, and there’s no escape to this condition. Nothing will make Mido someone else’s daughter. Nothing will make Oh Dae-su not love her.
But Lee Woo-jin has given his opponent the means to forget she’s not someone else’s daughter.
People often compare Christopher Nolan’s films to chess matches. But for all of Oldboy‘s violence, it’s at least as complex. And as beautiful.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.
See more, including free online content, on Julian Darius's author page.
Also by Julian Darius:
|executive producer||author||executive producer||introduction|