an analysis by the Crow
Part 1: The story so far
I first encountered Oldboy in the pages of a magazine I’d picked up in – you guessed it – 2003. The magazine (picked up on a whim thanks to my day being as exciting as watching paint dry) was also my first introduction to the Ghost in the Shell franchise; a phenomenon I intend to get under the skin of, some day, as part of this analysis series.
I eventually watched Oldboy in either ’06 or ’07. Mind you: I was much younger, then, but old enough in the brain for it. In the years following my initial watch of the movie, my opinion on it hasn’t changed much. It’s my view on what the movie explores, rather, that has.
Oldboy is a movie with the mind of chessmaster, the delicate caress of a sledgehammer to the face, and the heart of an overpassionate lover. Called one of the best Asian movies of all time, Oldboy has since been remade/ripped off countless times (none of which I care to watch), and continues to be talked about to this day by starry-eyed aficionados of cinema.
However, there’s something about this movie that I think deserves to be talked about more. Something that I feel is usually missed by your average viewer. Movies like Inception and Primer are often spoken about as films which audiences “don’t get”, whereas nothing could be further from the truth. Can the opposite be true? Can movies be “got” by the audience, yet be complex enough in reality?
The more pressing question is: is Oldboy such a movie?
Well, I won’t keep you waiting fifteen years. Come, scroll on down.
[WARNING: SPOILERS OF VARYING DEGREES FOLLOW]
WHAT WE SEE ON THE TV
Following a short, startling scene of a man being held back from commiting suicide by the end of his tie on a high-rise roof, Oldboy rolls back in time and begins like most of my nights would end if I had no real cares in the world: with Oh Dae-su (played by the excellent Choi Min-sik) drunk off his face.
After some hilarity with the local constabulary, Dae-su is released into the care of his friend Joo-hwan, who puts him on the phone with his daughter, and eventually, his wife. It’s Dae-su’s daughter’s fourth birthday. Not the best day to be tanking up, is it, old chap?
Joo-hwan takes over things on the phone, and we slide away to an overhead shot of a yellow (was it yellow?) umbrella. It is walked off screen to reveal Dae-su’s presents for his daughter lying on the street in the rain.
Dae-su is next seen locked in a hotel room, behind a door fit for exceptionally violent prisoners. He is passed food through a portal at the bottom, through which he begs and pleads and hurls insults at his off-screen captors.
So begins a fifteen-year period of imprisonment. Over the course of the years, we see Oh Dae-su grow hair and muscles and a purpose in life. He takes to punching at the walls, replicating the actions of boxers and martial artists he is allowed to watch through the screen of the one television set he is allowed. He takes to tattooing himself to count how long he has been here, starting when he is already some years behind. He takes to writing down the names of all the people he has wronged in the past – people who might be responsible for his torment. He grows from a flabby, non-threatening individual into something of a crazed hermit, transforming himself through his interactions with the screen of his only teacher, timekeeper, and lover.
What he loses, sometime around the TV’s revelation that his wife has been murdered – supposedly by him – is his relationship with human beings. Apart from the feet we see when food is passed to him through the portal – the same dumplings, every day, for fifteen years – his only relations are with the pictures of people on the television, and the mysterious hypnotist who occasionally visits him when he is gassed at night.
The people behind this strange prison take care of him, however. Apart from the initial violence at the portal through which he is fed, they cut his hair and bandage his wounds once he’s gassed and out. But with the impersonal nature of their care, and his isolation from people he might be able to interact with, Oh Dae-su effectively becomes a reflection of the people in the TV. In a strange way, he is turned into a truly fictional character: one step further from the other characters in the movie.
It’s a Kafkaesque scenario, for lack of a better word. Over the course of his imprisonment, Dae-su slips on the shoes of the Ks and the Gregors of Kafka’s writings. His nameless captors become the bureaucracy that Dae-su finds himself thrown against. The parallel here becomes especially interesting because of how grounded in reality Dae-su’s imprisonment seems on a first viewing. There are no dreamlike situations here. There is only the room, Dae-su, and his captors.
Hope comes, as it does in stories that begin like this, in the shape of an extra chopstick; a chopstick with which Dae-su starts scratching his way through the brickwork behind his bed (a la The Shawshank Redemption, nearly). The years pass by on the TV as he labours for his freedom. We enter a new millenium, the Twin Towers fall, governments are elected and change over. A question that should, however, pervade the viewer’s mind is: do these people really not notice his work when they do up his room after he’s gassed?
The movie never answers the question, but come on. It doesn’t need to.
On the day he finally bursts through the outer walls of the building – fingers reaching out and feeling rain for the first time in fifteen years, high above the ground, the movie switches gears.
Abruptly released onto the rooftop of a building, and after holding a man by the end of his tie to tell him his story, he wanders the city, rediscovering society. The broad strokes are still there, but the finer details, he quickly gets an introduction to (dickshit).
In time, he ends up at a sushi restaurant where two of the film’s most significant moments happen.
One is – of course – the infamous “octopus scene”, which is just famous for being what it is. The other significant moment is that we’re introduced to Mi-do – the movie’s leading lady.
Mi-do allows Dae-su into her home following his fainting at the restaurant. Right off the bat, one realises that Mi-do is broken, too. She is broken in different places than Dae-su, but nonetheless, they find common ground in the damage done to each other.
It centres on the image of ants. Ants that had earlier broken out of Dae-su’s skin and run over him in swarms, ants that Mi-do later talks about as a coping mechanism for lonely people. And while she says she never thinks about ants, we see her, tear-streaked and deflated, on a train, hallucinating an enormous ant. The true nature of these similarities is almost a giveaway to one of the movie’s secrets, and the subtelty through which they’re handled is exceptional if one watches the movie for the first time.
The combination of these two characters, each broken in their own ways, makes for a series of strange scenes of people connecting for the first time – only stripped down to the bare mechanics. In ways, both of them – especially Dae-su – are at once childlike and animalistic, only rediscovering parts of their humanity once boundaries have been crossed. Despite his crass near-sexual assault on her, however, Mi-do lets Dae-su remain, and promises to even help him.
Mi-do and Dae-su eventually team up to hunt down the restaurant which serves the aforementioned dumplings. Dae-su finds the high-rise he had been pent up in for so long, and exacts a significant degree of vengeance.
Still with no answers despite his rampage, Dae-su wanders the city once again, lost and damaged, only this time physically, at the hands of others. In a rush, answers are revealed to him. He has one day for each year of his imprisonment to find out “why”. The man responsible for his troubles tells him this in person. If Dae-su fails, Mi-do will be killed.
In between searching for the location of his prison, and wondering about things long-lost, Dae-su and Mi-do have formed a strange sort of affinity for one another. Like a couple of broken toys, discarded now that their place in society is no longer valid, they lie in a strange corner of society’s room. Threatening Mi-do is all it takes to seal Dae-su’s path.
MASSIVE SPOILER WARNING
The key, of course, is Mi-do. Why her? Why does the narrativium of Oldboy seem to destine them to pair together?
The answer is the penultimate assault of the film. It’s a revelation delivered only after Dae-su has uncovered the dark truth to “why”. Mr Evergreen, our villain, is the narrativium. He always has been. Every action since the night Dae-su was whisked off from the street has been carefully planned and pre-destined. Dae-su is naught but a puppet in a game that he cannot alter. Right up until the end, his actions are all the product of Evergreen’s mind.
Society did not discard Dae-su and Mi-do. Evergreen broke them himself, and then watched as they faded from society’s memory – and waited.
During the course of the movie, Mi-do and Dae-su enter a sexual relationship masterminded by Evergreen. This strange relationship is the crux of Evergreen’s plan. Movies with a villain so masterful are rare to come by. And when we do, it’s usually pretty easy to find flaws in them. The problem is, of course, that villains like these are usually at the core of vast plans. Oldboy‘s mastery is that it limits the villain’s wants and desires – constraining the scale of his plan. Evergreen’s plan is damn-near perfect, and has a clear end goal. This is something I’ll revisit in the follow-up to this post.
The movie apparently pits two different sorts of vengeance against one another. One is vengeance driven by past wrongs: a slow, smouldering vengeance, plotted down to perfection over years, and executed over years. The second is vengeance of a more explosive nature, a violent, animal reaction to harm done in the face of zero rationale for the harm.
Side note: It’s fitting that Oldboy sits in the centre of Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance triolgy. It is a movie that offers us possibly the best example of vengeance against vengeance.
The final third of the movie is something I cannot for the life of me give away at this point. It is something that needs to be seen without spoilers. No question. There are multiple assaults on the viewer, here, as the movie skips from one depraved moment to the next – all natural as breathing to the characters involved – until the final scene.
The final assault on the viewer is taken as an open ending by some. However, the movie itself makes it excessively clear what’s happened. There are no excuses, there is no out from it. The movie simply holds its biggest moment on the edge of the hypnotist’s fingertips, and on the countenance of Dae-su.
The question it presents us with? It’s almost the same from the first moments of the movie, delivered by a man on the brink of death, only this time, by Dae-su:
Even though I’m no more than a monster – don’t I, too, have the right to live?
And the lesson it leaves us with?
Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone.
But, it must be asked. Is what’s presented to us all there is to the movie? Or is there something deeper to be found?
In Part 2, we’ll move on to breaking down the film a little further, and looking at it from new angles to see if truly, all there is to Oldboy is what we see on the TV.
Until then, sweet dreams.
– Crow out