(For a detailed summary, see"What Happens?" at the bottom of the page.)
Oldboy is the second film in Chan Wook Park's "Vengeance" trilogy. (The other two being, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance) That being said, all three of the films stand alone and are only linked in that each is a meditation on Vengeance and the fact that none of the films give a color by numbers revenge story. The Oldboy story is based on Japanese manga. Typically a revenge film is one man addressing a great wrong, but Park shows us a complex world of equally complex characters, where many may have arguable rights to revenge, but seeking it seldom does anyone any good only escalating the atrocities and pain for all parties.
Oldboy is significant for it's misdirection, and the intricacy of it's plot and Woo Jin's revenge scheme. We sympathize with Dae Su, for enduring fifteen years of imprisonment, and hope that he gets the answers he wants. Realizing that imprisoning him for fifteen years was actually a minor part of his plan, only fulfilled to allow Mi-Do to become an adult, not recognizable to Dae Su, is not a conclusion one would easily jump to. For most of the film we follow Dae Su's quest, to get the who and why behind his imprisonment as this is what consumes him.
His offense to Woo Jin is interesting in that he did nothing but start a rumor, which countless high school kids do every day. In this case however, the rumor causes the worst possible damage, and the person it affects the most, (aside from Soo Ah) has vast resources and an obsessive nature. To Dae Su, starting the rumor had little significance at all. As Woo Jin points out, it was simply something he forgot because it didn't matter to him. He transferred schools and was not privy to the rumor spreading or it's effects. Dae Su fills many journals with names of people he has wronged, but the rumor never occurs to him at all, not seeing it as a wrong, perhaps, but part of his childhood.
Dae Su refers to the person he becomes after being freed as "the monster." but judging by his journals and what little we see of him before he's kidnapped, it's debatable which is the better man. The old Dae Su, wronged countless people, including his wife on a regular basis, thinking nothing of it. After the imprisonment, he doesn't commit "casual" wrongs the same way. This is partly because he's obsessed with his mission, but partly I think because his time had made him more aware of all of his "sins." "The Monster" is far from good. He thinks nothing of pulling a man's teeth out for information, but unlike his past self, "the Monster" has a reason for his actions and they are only directed at those who wronged him. The only instance of "The Monster" attacking the innocent is when he attempts to force Mi-Do to have sex. But that comes across as half hearted, with him causing no real harm before she easily gets him to back off. Even then, he apologizes immediately, which his old self would likely not bother to do.
Woo Jin, on the other hand is completely amoral on the surface. He thinks nothing of any action required to fulfill his plan. The only time he shows any emotion is the moment before he kills himself. We see that his sister's death shattered him, and while he imprisoned Dae Su for fifteen years, we get the very real sense that despite his means, he has been imprisoned ever since that day. The ethical and moral issues of his inappropriate relationship with his sister are forever unexamined, as he can't get past the fact that he loved his sister and she's dead. The issues are addressed in some fashion, by his method of true revenge, fooling Dae Su and Mi Do into falling in love, he removes Dae Su's ability to judge him, knowing that Dae Su, even unknowingly has begun a father/daughter relationship, makes his own brother/sister relationship seem smaller. The depths of his manipulation also make it difficult for Dae Su to find his own right moral choice. While he may be shocked by the revelation, it's unthinkable to him that Mi-Do could bear the knowledge, not only that he's her father, but by implication that her whole life was manipulated in order that this would happen.
For a movie with such tight plotting it's surprisingly energetic, with plenty of action to accompany the plot twists. Seeing Dae Su take on ridiculous amounts of people is always entertaining, and Min-sik Choi does a wonderful job showing the complexities of this character who is past the edge of lunacy and yet remarkably self aware in a way that only fifteen years of isolation could produce. The fighting is not graceful, but unconventional. This is a man who could likely avoid a hit but doesn't always want to bother stepping out of the way. Plowing through is his main tactic and he does quite well with it most of the time. It's also of interest that for such a bloody story, Dae Su doesn't kill people, happy to stop when he has what he wants or they stop attacking. His first fight is almost entirely based on curiosity, can his imaginary practice work? We get the sense that being hit, is nothing to him and almost welcomed as a reminder that he isn't imprisoned anymore. He's full of rage, but not arbitrary malice. He's into hitting but not creating suffering, except for a few exceptions.
Ji-tae Yu's Woo-Jin is the perfect contrast. He's everything that Dae Su is not. He has no interest in getting his hands dirty at all, perfectly content to hide in the background and let others do the work. Where Dae Su welcomes violence to vent his rage, Woo jin sees it as a very small gesture, putting much more value on the lasting damage he can do, by affecting someone's mind and actions. His malice doesn't care about any casualties, provided Dae Su has full knowledge of what he did and what revenge has been taken against him. To kill Dae Su would be to make his plan less effective, better to let him live in a situation that's completely abhorrent to him, knowing that his own actions were in some way responsible.
Dae Su's very idea of revenge is changed. While he imagines that killing the man who wronged him was all there was to it. He comes to realize that it isn't so simple. Given the chance to kill Woo Jin, he stops when he's reminded that if he does, he won't know "why." Obviously, knowing the why, gives him no satisfaction at all, only deepens his problems, but he discovers that the knowing is as much a part of his quest as the retribution. Neither man ends up satisfied with his revenge. Woo Jin's inability to let go of his sister is only increased, and we get the sense that he planned to kill himself anyway, his revenge on Dae Su just a checklist item he had to take care of before he checked out. Dae Su's revenge attempt at revenge only leaves him completely lost, with far more guilt than he imagined possible. He is left more powerless than he was when he was imprisoned, turning to hypnosis, one of the tools used against him, as his only means of coping.
All in all, Oldboy is an in depth look at vengeance from many angles we don't normally see fleshed out. While it's been denounced as a celebration of violence, I can only imagine that his label is used by those who haven't see it, or else saw it and didn't pay attention. Violence here is shown to be completely ineffective. We start with what appears to be an old fashioned "eye for an eye" story, but it doesn't last long. These are characters forced to admit that their revenge solves nothing, and that their pain and guilt will never be fixed, although they would do anything in the world to prove different. The lengths they will go to set things right are all that hey feel they have. Woo jin would devote his life to studying Dae Su, and Dae Su surprises himself perhaps when despite his palpable rage, he's able to put aside his revenge entirely for a moment and cut off his own tongue rather than traumatize Mi-do. The major damage done to the characters is what they do to themselves. The tough question is "What happens when it's gone?" Wu-Jinn answers clearly, feeling he has nothing left. Dae Su's only wish is to stop thinking about it, and maybe he can accomplish that, his smile at the end doesn't tell us for sure. In any event, his character has grown a lot, if too quickly and painfully, in that making his decision, he truly considers the feelings of another, an action beyond the original Dae Su.
At the beginning of "Oldboy" we meet the threatening figure of Dae Su (Min-sik Choi) leaning a man over the roof of a building, using the man's tie to keep him from falling. Dae Su says "I said, I just wanted to talk to someone." The man is panicked but begs Dae Su to let go of him. We see Dae Su's face threateningly cloaked in shadow before flashing back in time to Dae Su, now clean cut at the police station being held for drunkenness. The officer's get quickly tired of him, reminding him repeatedly to sit down, although he can't stop being an extreme nuisance. He explains that his name, Dae Su means "getting along with everybody." and he also mentions that it's his daughter's birthday, explaining the costume angel wings he's wearing, as her present.
Eventually a friend, Joo Hwan, (Dae-han Ji) bails him out and he and Dae Su stop at a pay phone to call his daughter and tell her he has a gift for her birthday. Joo Hwan asks for the phone to wish the little girl a happy birthday as well. While Joo Hwan talks, Dae Su wanders off. Joo Hwan assumes he's playing games, but we see the angel wings in the street. We next find Dae Su confined at an undetermined location reaching his hand out of a small hatch in a door pleading with his captor to explain something to him, threatening, and asking to be let out. The inside of his cell looks like a hotel room. He wonders in voice over. "If they had told me I was going to be locked up for 15 years, would it have been any easier to endure, or would it have been harder?" We see Dae Su with his hair overgrown and unshaven looking like a completely different person. He explains that his captors play the same music every night before gassing his room to put him to sleep. "I found out later that it's the same valium gas Russian soldiers used on the Checyen terrorists." While he sleeps they cut his hair and clean up the room. He remarks "They're gracious bastards." Dae Su spends much of his time watching television. He learns that his wife has been killed while he's been confined and that he is the prime suspect. Police also claim that he took a photo album from the house before disappearing.
Dae Su advises "If you're standing aimlessly at a phone booth on a rainy day. and you meet a man whose face is covered by a violet umbrella, I'd suggest that you get close to the TV. The television is both a clock and a calendar. It's your school, your home, your church, friend and your lover." Dae Su soon finds another activity, "I decided to write down all the people I fought, bothered and hurt. This was both my prison journal and the autobiography of my evil deeds. I thought I'd lived an average life, but I've sinned so much." His journal takes up many notebooks. He notices that he's given three chopsticks for his meals and imagines his "neighbor" must eat with one chopstick. He draws the outline of a body on his wall and starts practice fighting, punching the wall, in hopes of eventual revenge. Dae Su uses his extra chopstick to attempt digging through the bricks in the wall and tattoos himself with a line for every year confined.
We see fifteen years pass via historic moments on the television. One morning a woman comes into his room holding a bell, she says "You're by yourself. Right now, you're lying on a plane. When you hear the sound of the bell, turn your head and look down. Do you understand what I'm saying?" She rings the bell and continues "You will see an endless field of green grass. The sun is shining brightly and there's a cool breeze." We then see a red trunk in the middle of a field. The trunk opens and Dae Su gets out of it. The grass is on the roof of a building and the man we saw in the beginning being suspended by his tie is there holding a dog. Dae Su touches the man and dog as if to prove they're real. The man is shaken by this and asks him "You see, even though I'm worse than a beast, don't I have the right to live?" Dae Su repeats the man's question. We see that the man throw himself backward over the ledge, attempting suicide. Dae Su catches him by his tie and asks the man to delay his death to hear his story. The man remarks "That's awful" after hearing Dae Su's tale. He then asks Dae Su to hear his own story but Oh Dae Su leaves. We see the man fall from the roof onto a car as Dae Su walks out at ground level.
Dae Su can't contact anyone being wanted for murder. Walking around the city he runs into a group of young thugs who assault him. He wonders "Can fifteen years of imaginary training be put to use?" After beating the whole group, he remarks "It can." A homeless man approaches him on the street, handing Dae Su a wallet and cell phone, remarking "I don't even know where this stuff comes from, so don't even ask." Finding money in the wallet, he enters a sushi bar and tells the woman working there, "I want something that's still alive." The woman thinks that he looks familiar, and he thinks she does too. He realizes he's seen her on TV, as one of the youngest female chefs. He tells her "women's hands are usually warm so they can't make sushi." His phone rings and a man asks if he likes his clothes. Dae Su asks the man on the phone who he is making many guesses which the man tells him are all wrong. He offers "Me, I'm sort of a scholar, and my major is you. A scholar, studying Dae Su, an expert on Dae Su. Who I am isn't important. Why? is important. Think it over. Review your whole lifetime. Since school is over, it's time for your homework right? Keep this in mind, a grain of sand or a rock, in water, they both sink." Dae SU tells the man he knows that he was hypnotized while captive and asks what he was made to do. The man only answers "I miss you. Hurry and come back." The woman chef gives him a live octopus and offers to slice it for him. He doesn't wait and just puts the live octopus in his mouth to take a bite, the tentacles fight as he consumes it.
He passes out and wakes up in the woman's apartment. She asks him about his journals which she's been reading. She also asks why he fainted and he tells her lack of sunlight depleted him of vitamins C and E. She tells him that the bathroom door doesn't lock but warns him not to get any "bright ideas" before she visits the bathroom. He does however get a "bright idea." and rushes into the bathroom while she's on the toilet attempting to take her by force. He asks "Can fifteen years of imaginary training be put to use?" She hits him in the head with the handle of a knife she's holding, and he remarks "It can't." He starts getting ready to go and apologizes to her. She tells him she understands and she likes him. She tells him "You don't even know who I am, I'm Mi-do. You'll see. Later on, when I'm really ready, I swear that I will do it! I promise!" She tells him she knew there was something she liked about him from the moment she saw him and tells him the next time, even if she resists to go ahead and take her anyway.
Mi-Do (Hye-jeong Kang) helps him look for information, finding his daughter's address from a storekeeper, who explains that his daughter has Swedish foster parents and she calls looking for Dae Su once in a while, not even knowing that he killed her mother. Mi-Do gives him the daughter's address.Her name is apparently Eva now and she's in Stockholm. Mi-Do offers to call for him, but he declines the offer. She offers to visit his wife's grave with him as well, but he's determined to kill the man who did it first. The two of them start visiting every restaurant that serves dumplings for a lead, as he was fed dumplings every night in captivity, and can't forget the taste.
Mi-do sets him up an email and chat account and Dae Su is curious about a chat friend she has who tells her his favorite movie is "Count of Monte Cristo." Dae Su is upset at Mi-Do's chat friend's response and takes a hammer from Mi-Do and leaves telling her "I don't know who you are." Oh Dae Su finds the dumplings at the "Magic Blue Dragon." and follows a delivery boy to the place he was held. Using his claw hammer, he gets to the building manager, Mr. Park (Dal-su Oh.) He displays his tattooed lines and tortures him, pulling his teeth out with the hammer until he talks. He discovers the manager's tapes and leaving the office, finds the hallway full of thugs. Before fighting them he asks if any of them have AB blood, sending the manager to the guy who raises his hand to go to the hospital with him. Dae Su then fights the whole group who attack him with knives, boards and pipes. Even after getting stabbed in the back he beats them all and leaves them lying on the floor. As soon as he's finished, the elevator arrives with a fresh batch of thugs. Dae Su smiles and we see him exiting the elevator moments later stepping over them to get out after he's beaten them.
On the street, he remarks "I can't get along any better now than I did before. I've become a monster now. When my vengeance is over, when I've had my revenge, can I ever return to being the old Dae Su?" He collapses in a crosswalk and a passer by puts him into a cab with instructions to get him taken care of. Dae Su, thanks the man, who smiles and shows his face, saying "Not at all! Farewell Dae Su!" Dae Su realizes this is the man who had him imprisoned, but he's too weak to follow. Once treated and bandaged, he returns to Mi-do. We see that someone is taking pictures of Dae Su from across the street. He starts listening to the tapes he took from the manager at the captivity building. He hears them discuss him, but the only reason the man gives for imprisoning him is that "he talks too much." He decides to visit his friend Joo-Hwan at the internet cafe. He's thrilled to see him. Joo-Hwan listens to the tapes and when Dae Su asks if he knows the voice he answers "Now how the hell should I know, all the names of all the husbands whose wives you screwed." Dae Su logs into his chat account finding a suspicious chat friend with "evergreen" in it, which he questions Mi-do about after tying her up.
He finds an address for the evergreen email account, and rushes there, finding his captor Woo jin (Ji-tae Yu) there with bodyguards. Woo jin tells him "You want to know what's going on. You want to know who I am. Come on, it's a game! First the who, and then I'll tell you why. If you figure it out, come see me anytime, I'll raise your score. You have until July 5th. Oh no, only 5 days left! Too short? Hang in there, if you succeed, I'll kill myself and not Mi-do." He adds "I will kill every girl that you love until the day that you die." Enraged by the taunting, Dae Su chokes Woo Jin, who tells his bodyguard not to intervene. Dae Su prepares to torture Woo Jin, but he reveals that he has a pacemaker in his chest with an off switch enabling him to kill himself at any time, which would prevent torture and Dae Su from getting any answers. Woo Jin and his bodyguard leave reminding him that he left Mi-do tied up and the door is unlocked. He rushes back to her place and finds the building manager there with some thugs. Mr. Park shows off some new teeth and he has Dae Su held down making preparations to extract his teeth. Park is surprised that rather than cower, Dae Su laughs. Before he's able to do anything, he gets a call telling him to leave. Dae Su tells Mr. park that he's going to chop off his hand for touching Mi Do's breast, but he is not able to follow them. Dae Su tells Mi Do some of the details of what happened.
Woo Jin learns that Dae Su and Mi Do have left her apartment and that she quit her job. Mi Do reveals that she's in love with Dae Su and they finally make love. Woo Jin tells his bodyguard that he's getting depressed and that they'll leave when this is done. At Dae Su's new place we see gas coming in under the door. Men in gas masks enter while they're out and leave a gift wrapped box on the table containing Mr. Park's hand, which Dae Su had threatened to chop off. This tells Dae Su that Woo Jin is listening to them. Mi-Do investigates "evergreen" and discovers the phrase "evergreen old boys" a term for attendees of Dae Su's high school. Mi Do and Dae Su visit the school and find Woo Jin's picture, as well as the fact that in the same class a girl, Soo Ah, has had her pictures cut out of the yearbook. Dae Su calls Joo Hwan to ask about this and he tells Dae Su that Soo Ah died after Dae Su transferred out of the school. Describing her, Joo hwan says that she apparently committed suicide, jumping off a bridge and that "She was a total slut. On the outside she acted just like a prude, a good girl, inside she was really wild. Rumors had it that slut fucked everyone at school! I should have gotten a piece of her." Joo-Hwan doesn't realize that Woo jin is in the internet cafe with him, eavesdropping. Enraged at what he's hearing, he kills Joo-hwan. He then gets on the call with Dae Su and tells him "My sister wasn't a slut!'
Dae Su and Mi-Do then locate Mr. Park who offers to help, claiming he hates Woo Jin for cutting off his hand. He leaves Mi-Do with Mr. Park for protection while he digs deeper. He visits a school friend of Soo Ah, who says that Soo Ah was definitely not a slut but she was seeing someone, that nobody knew about. The conversation jogs Dae Su's memory and he recalls his last day at the school, and talking to Soo Ah. She leaves the conversation abruptly and he discreetly follows her finding that she and her brother Woo Jin are in an empty class room together. Woo Jin takes pictures of her, which lead to Woo Jin making curious sexual advances. Soo Ah is horrified however, when she sees Dae Su watching them through a broken window. Later, Dae Su tells Joo-Hwan, warning him not to tell anyone, although he promptly tells everybody. He fill Mi-Do in on his memory and she's surprised that he would be imprisoned for fifteen years for such a relatively minor offense. Dae Su reminds her of what Woo Jin said, "Be it a grain of sand or a stone, in water they both sink." He also realizes that the deadline of July 5th was the day his sister died. Mi-Do proposes that now that he knows he can stop seeking revenge but Dae Su tells her that revenge has become a part of him now.
Dae Su tracks down Woo Jin's penthouse apartment using a proverb that Woo Jin quoted. Woo Jin and his bodyguard escort him to the right floor when he can't figure out the access code. In the elevator, Dae Su says "You had sex with your sister." Once they reach his place, Woo Jin tells his guards to attack. Dae Su easily beats then all except for Woo Jin's main bodyguard, who doesn't fight, but tells him to be nice. Woo Jin explains to him that the rumor got around to everyone that Soo Ah was pregnant, causing her to develop a fake pregnancy. Dae Su accuses him of killing his sister to cover up the pregnancy. He notices Woo Jin has a picture of Soo Ah on the bridge she jumped from dated July 5th, although she supposedly died alone.
Woo Jin then interrupts to tell Dae Su about post hypnotic suggestion. He explains that he hypnotized both him and Mi-Do, as both were highly susceptible to hypnosis. His first hypnotic suggestion was to go to Mi-Do's restaurant. The second was a response to the cell phone ring, causing him to say "Who are you?" Mi-Do was conditioned to react to that phrase, grabbing his hand, which in turn caused him to pass out. All of these events were designed to make the two fall in love.
He tells Dae Su that rather than asking why he'd been imprisoned, he should have been asking why he was released after 15 years.
Woo Jin points out a purple gift wrapped box which Dae Su opens, finding it contains his own family photo album with many pictures of his daughter, who he realizes is Mi-Do. We see Mi-Do with Mr, Park wearing the angel wings from the beginning. Dae Su, enraged, now attacks the bodyguard who easily throws him back every time. The bodyguard doesn't realize that Dae Su had a pair of scissors in his hand which he had shoved into his ear, leaving him paralyzed and disoriented. Woo Jin shoots his bodyguard to put him down and he falls. Dae Su asks if Mi-Do knows, and Woo Jin tells him he was stupid to leave her with Mr, Park, who wasn't angry about the hand but gladly gave it up for a good amount of money. He also tells Dae Su that he has been secretly raising Mi-Do since she was 4. Woo Jin then arranges for a call so Dae Su can talk to Mi-Do who is with Mr. Park. She tells him that Park has a box there he wants her to open. He pleads with her not to open it. Dae Su then grovels on the ground begging Woo Jin not to tell Mi-Do as she's done nothing wrong. He abandons all dignity, crawling like a dog and barking, even licking Woo Jin's shoes. He ultimately cuts off the tip of his own tongue off, in order to get him to spare Mi-Do. Woo Jin laughs at the display but calls Park and tells him to leave the box closed. He holds a gun to Dae Su's head but takes it away. Dae Su realizes he's dropped the trigger device for his pacemaker and grabs it as Woo Jin walks to the elevator to leave him. Dae Su presses the trigger but rather than kill Woo Jin it plays audio of he and Mi-Do having sex. Before the elevator doors close, he tells Dae Su "Believe it or not, my sister and I really loved each other. Can you two do the same?" Dae Su is left there to listen. In the elevator, Woo Jin remembers the day Soo Ah died. In the memory he struggles to hold her arm, as she hangs from the bridge. She begs him to let go and he finally does, watching her fall. In present time, Woo-Jin shoots himself in the head.
We discover that the whole story was a letter written to a woman that haggard, gray haired Dae Su is meeting with in a snowy forest landscape. She tells him that she has no reason to help him, but she found something he wrote touching, "Even though, I'm worse than a beast, don't I have the right to live?" She warns him that hypnosis could distort his memories, but he isn't bothered by that. She asks Dae Su to stare at a tree and she retells part of the story. "You're inside Woo Jin's penthouse, it's a dreary night. The sound of your footsteps to the window permeates the room. When I ring my bell, you'll be split into two persons, the one who doesn't know the secret is Dae Su, the one who keeps the secret is the monster. When I ring my bell again the monster will turn around and walk away. With each step the monster will age one year. When the monster reaches 70, he will die." Mi-Do finds him sleeping in the snow and asks if someone was with him. He notices the woman's footprints and sees two chairs set but but gives no indication. Mi-Do says "I love you, Oh Dae Su" and he smiles strangely.