more stars than in the heavens

not in our stars, but in ourselves

2015 Movie Challenge: Oldboy


6/52: A movie based on a graphic novel/comic

There’s no dearth of films based on comic books these days.  Most major Hollywood studios’ release schedules are solar systems consisting of superhero franchises, reboots, sequels, etc., orbiting around a particular comic book sun. (So to speak.) Ho-hum.  Not that I don’t find some of these films tremendously entertaining – I do – but I wanted to test myself a bit with this installment in the challenge.  And let me tell you: I sure did.

I’ve seen Oldboy (2003, mind you, none of this 2013 nonsense) once before.  I watched it mostly from behind my fingers.  This time, I forced myself to watch it without flinching, at least not too much.  In fact, I wondered if I had remembered it correctly: would it fuck me up as much this time, even after I knew the twist ending?  Yes.  Yes, it did.

I’d recommend turning back if you haven’t seen the film yet – for one thing, to avoid spoilers, and for another, to spare your psyche.  Go on.  Look at something nice instead.  Navigate away from the page.


Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) gets outrageously drunk on his little daughter’s birthday.  His friend has to pick him up at the police station.  While his friend tries to placate Dae-su’s wife by phone, Dae-su – standing just outside the phone booth – disappears.  He has been taken to a hotel-like prison where he’s gassed to sleep every night.  He has a television, which allows him his only view of the outside world – and also his only way of knowing how much time is passing.  He learns that he is wanted for the murder of his own wife (his captors planted evidence at the house), and he is able to mark each long day, week, month, year, and decade that he’s locked up.  He doesn’t know who’s doing this to him, or why.  He tries to think of everyone he’s ever wronged, and finds that it’s a hell of a long list.  After fifteen years, he is suddenly released – dressed in a smart black suit and equipped with a mobile phone and some money.  Wandering aimlessly into a sushi restaurant, where he asks to eat something alive (a Korean delicacy, believe it or not, called sannakji), and meets Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung), the restaurant’s pretty young chef.  They seem to recognize each other, but Dae-su attributes his recognition to having seen her featured on a TV show about up-and-coming Korean chefs.  He collapses soon after eating an octopus (wouldn’t you?) and she takes him back to her apartment.  After she reads his journals that he kept while locked up, she decides to help him seek revenge.  She also promises to let him know when she’s ready to have sex with him by singing him a song mentioned in his journal.  As you do.  Dae-su’s captor calls him on the phone, telling him that he has five days – until July 5th – to learn who he is, why he locked up Dae-su, and why he let him go.  If Dae-su fails, Mi-do will die.  The couple, now lovers, figure out that the mysterious antagonist is Lee Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae).  All this misery, all this vengeance, all this pain stems from something so small that Dae-su had completely forgotten it: an offhand comment he made after seeing Woo-jin having sex with his own sister. (How do you forget something like that?  The mind reels.) The comment took root, and grew into a malicious rumor, so insidious and pervasive that Woo-jin’s sister committed suicide.  Woo-jin has never recovered, and has exacted brutal revenge: not only did he lock Dae-su up and take fifteen years of his life, he also arranged – through regular hypnosis of both parties – to make Dae-su and Mi-do fall in love.  No big deal…except for the fact that Mi-do is Dae-su’s daughter.  Totally annihilated when he learns the truth, Dae-su cuts out his own tongue and begs the hypnotist to make him forget everything.


Oldboy is based on a Japanese manga of the same name, but director Park Chan-wook has made a number of changes to the very structure and function of the plot and themes.  For a great breakdown of the differences between the manga and the film, I highly recommend this piece by Julian Darius.  In brief, however: there is no relation between the Dae-su and Mi-do characters in the manga (where they’re called Shinichi Goto and Eri).  The incest element is Park’s contribution to the story – and it elevates the story, which might have been a “mere” revenge flick, to the levels of Greek tragedy.  In fact, Park deliberately named his hero Oh Dae-su: Oedipus.  Just as Oedipus was fated to kill his own father and marry his own mother, and to gouge out his own eyes when he learned the horrible truth, Oh Dae-su is manipulated into falling in love with his own daughter and cutting out his own tongue.  Of course, Oedipus was just born into a rotten prophecy; he didn’t knowingly do anything wrong.  Dae-su didn’t necessarily do anything wicked, but he’s obviously always had a big mouth; and, as the song says, voices carry.


As Darius puts it, the specific reason for all this revenge seems pretty trivial:

Oh Dae-su was transferring to a different school at the time he made this comment, so he didn’t hear about the girl’s suicide. His comment to his friend was so inconsequential that Oh Dae-su has forgotten about it. He seems to have filled whole notebooks with his offenses against various people, yet he never thought of this. […] Usually, the worse a transgression, the more a character is motivated as a result. But what’s key isn’t only the depth of the transgression; it’s how much someone cares about it. And Lee Woo-jin cares very much. Not only because he has to blame someone for his sister’s death. But also because Lee Woo-jin had an incestuous relationship with his sister.

This is utterly new to the movie, and it — along with his sister’s suicide — helps explain the depths of his need for revenge on Oh Dae-su.

Woo-jin knows, or discovers, that Dae-su was the one who started the rumors about his sister: the rumors that she was a slut, that she was game for anything, that she would spread her legs for just about anyone.  Rather than focus his anger and energy on the others in the school, who fanned the flames by exaggerating the rumor more and more every time they repeated it, he decides he needs to destroy the unwitting source.



Of course, if I may get feministy for a moment, I would say that Woo-jin didn’t need to blame anyone but himself.  During the flashback scene, where we see Dae-su spying on the incestuous siblings, it very much seems that Woo-jin is forcing his sister to do things she doesn’t want to do.  How much of her suicide was fueled by shame stemming from rumors, and how much of it was fueled by grief that her own brother was preying on her?  She tells him no, she tells him to stop, but she gives in.  She never says yes.  Her suicide may be the only act of agency she’s ever performed in her life.

Anyway, I am no more an expert on manga than I am on Korean cinema, so I am approaching Oldboy from a decidedly outside perspective.  It is a great film, however, even if you do have to watch it through your fingers.  Just be prepared to plumb depths of human misery you never knew possible.


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This entry was posted on February 8, 2015 by and tagged , , , , , .
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