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…
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 again the 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!