I’m going to start this off by being totally honest. I knew the twist going into this movie. And I thought it was dumb. It seemed exploitative to have a man unknowing bang his daughter. The shock elicited from such an act would be too easy and too gross. Having not seen the film (or not the whole film) I was under the impression that it was most likely the sole reason for its cult status. But having seen a couple other of director Park Chan-wook’s films (The Handmaiden, Thirst, Mr. Vengeance) I decided to give it a go.
How wrong I was.
Oldboy is an excellent story, relying thematically on the classic motif of vengeance. But instead of going down the well tread path of countless other revenge flicks, Park chooses to follow the motto “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”: essentially that revenge will never quench the pain that you’ve been inflicted, and seeking it will only leave you feeling more empty and more despicable. This takes form in two of our characters, Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) and Lee Woo-jin (Yu Ji-tae). As they seek vengeance with one another for wrongs committed, we can’t help but wonder why. Oh has been released from captivity and has found love and Lee is clearly very wealthy. Why can’t they allow bygones to be bygones?
We cannot know the depth of their rage for the deeds done upon them and the size of the hole this tears in their hearts without experiencing their lives firsthand. And Park’s telling of this tale combined with some first rate acting nearly accomplishes this feat. Park’s direction of the sequence where Oh is locked away brilliantly showcases the madness that Oh must be experiencing. Surrealism combined with some self inflicted violence allows us to feel Oh’s anguish as he is locked away, never allowed to feel the sun on his skin or the breeze in his face. And the violence later on in the film, while typically brutal and graphic for a Park film, serves to showcase the extremity of Oh’s anger and desperation to deal with the 15 years that have been stolen from him. These sequences simultaneously deliver exciting action set-pieces and deep character insights.
The nature of Lee’s desire for revenge is the mystery that the film unravels at a steady pace, finally ending upon the reveal that Oh had began a rumor (is it still a rumor if it’s true? I don’t know) about Lee’s sister, Soo-ah, being overly promiscuous after catching the Lee siblings engaging in sexual acts unbecoming of a brother and sister. The grain of sand that Oh drops eventually turns into a massive rock that crushes her , eventually causing her to commit suicide. This is the hole that lives in Lee’s heart, one that he tries to fill by starting an insanely complex conspiracy to exact revenge upon Oh in a plot that spans 15 years. And at the end, when his vengeance is complete, he says himself that he has nothing left to live for. This scheme has perhaps enlarged the hole that already existed. Instead of moving on from his adversities, Lee has stewed on them for years and years, and in that ultimate moment he’d been waiting for since his sister died, his satisfaction was fleeting. He kills himself moments later.
It’s with these ideas in mind that I realized how wrong I was to think that Park’s film was solely successful due to the exploitative nature of the twist ending.
There is a line heard towards the beginning of the film that takes on brand new meaning at its conclusion. And this line kind of encapsulates the theme of the movie generally well. “Even though I’m worse than a beast, don’t I still deserve to live?” This can be applied to Oh’s newfound incestuous relationship, or it can be applied to the idea of allowing revenge to rest. Perhaps those less-than-beasts that did you wrong deserve to live, and perhaps seeking revenge will only bring about more unnecessary pain.