Review and Analysis: Oldboy (2003)

Directed by Park Chan-wook, Oldboy tells the story of Oh Dae-su, played by Choi Min-sik, who was locked in a room alone for fifteen years without knowing his captor or the reason for his imprisonment. When he gets released, he searches out the kidnapper, intent on bloody revenge. Spoilers for the ending ahead!

I consider Oldboy to be a masterpiece in practically every sense. Its phenomenal music strengthens the scenes and stays with you even after the movie ends. The film has great pacing, beautiful cinematography, and amazingly intense moments. I've seen a couple reviews call the movie "torture porn" but I completely disagree. I can hardly stomach gore/open wounds, and Oldboy doesn't have much of that. The violence drives the plot forward and doesn't exist just for shock value. 

The actors are all brilliant, and I find myself admiring them even more with each time I watch the film. Choi Min-sik is particularly amazing throughout it, especially in the third act. During the last two times I watched it, I found myself admiring the acting aloud during the scene where he tries to appease Woo-jin. 

I really enjoyed the parallels in the film, especially parallels to Greek mythology! Oh Dae-su's name sounds a bit like Odysseus, though the only similarity is that they were both prisoners for a long time - Odysseus had to be on Calypso's island for seven years. Dae-su is more like the tragic hero Oedipus, who unknowingly fulfilled his prophecy by killing his father and marrying his mother. When he discovers the truth, he gouges his eyes out. 

After catching Woo-jin and his sister in an incestuous act, Dae-su carelessly starts a rumor that spirals out of control, and Woo-jin's sister eventually kills herself. Woo-jin sets up an elaborate plan to exact revenge on Dae-su for "talking too much." Dae-su unknowingly falls in love and has sex with his daughter, Mi-do after fifteen years in prison. To appease Woo-jin so that he won't reveal the truth to Mi-do, Dae-su ends up cutting out his own tongue. Earlier Woo-jin also metaphorically stated that Dae-su's tongue had gotten his sister pregnant - not a real pregnancy, but the rumors made her believe she was. 

The Wikipedia page for Oldboy states that Woo-jin's CGI yoga pose is meant to convey "the image of Apollo," whose prophecy determined Oedipus' fate.

Woo-jin and Dae-su are somewhat similar. When Woo-jin gets dressed and begins explaining everything to Dae-su near the end, he is in front of a mirror, almost as if he's speaking to himself. There's also the scene where Dae-su reaches down to prevent a man from falling off a building. It looks similar to Woo-jin's pose when he's trying to keep his sister from falling off the bridge. (Bonus parallel about the sister: she is seen reading a work by Sylvia Plath, an author who killed herself.)

People widely debate the ending: did Dae-su forget everything, or did the hypnosis go wrong? I think that it went wrong and he still retains all his memories. A few scenes in the film showcase him grinning yet grimacing in pain, and the ending is no different. If you think of Oh Dae-Su’s story as similar to a Greek tragic hero, you’ll know that there are no happy endings in Greek tragedies.

I was browsing a page to see what other people thought of the ending and I came across this towards the bottom:

"You all have not noticed one major clue in the movie. Who gave the name of the psychiatrist to OH??? It was the guy himself. He knew that OH will go to her. And if he can buy a hand from the jail owner, Don't you think he can buy her too? That's where his revenge finishes. He makes sure that OH lives with the burden of knowing what he has done with his daughter for the rest of his life." - Adnan

I really like that interpretation. Regardless of whether or not the hypnosis went wrong on purpose, I'd like to think that he still has the memories so he fulfills the tragic hero role.

I have to give Oldboy 10/10! Have you seen the film? What do you think of it?