From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
- “Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone”
Oldboy is a manga-based 2003 South Korean film directed by Park Chan-wook. It is the second installment of Park's "Vengeance trilogy", preceded by Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and followed by Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.
The film begins in the year 1988. Oh Dae-su, a Korean everyman with a wife and daughter, drinks and womanizes heavily. At the start of the film he has been picked up by police for being drunk and disorderly, and has to be bailed out by his friend. While they call Dae-su's wife from a roadside phone booth for a ride home, Dae-su is kidnapped by persons unknown.
Dae-su is then seen in a private prison that resembles a shabby hotel room. He has been kept there for two months with no word of who is holding him there or why. He is gassed into unconsciousness when he becomes violent or suicidal (or when they need to cut his hair or maintain the suite). His only contact with the outside world is through the television, from which he learns one day that his wife has been murdered and his daughter has vanished (and that he is himself a prime suspect). As months go by, Dae-su slides into near-madness.
Attempting to get a grip on his sanity, Dae-su fills several notebooks with an autobiography-cum-prison diary, but is unable to figure out who would hate him so profoundly as to imprison him like this. He forces himself to train, punching at the walls of his prison until thick calluses form on his knuckles. When one of his deliveries of fried dumplings (apparently his only food while in captivity) turns out to have an extra chopstick, he conceals it and uses it to dig out one of the walls. Over the next fifteen years, he works out, follows current events on TV, and loosens enough bricks to glimpse the outside world once again.
Just as abruptly as he was captured, Dae-su is set free -- with a new suit of clothes, a wallet full of money, a cellphone, and his prison diaries. His fifteen years of "imaginary training" have paid off: when a gang of thugs attack him, he fends them off with only his fists. Then he meets Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang), a girl who works in a sushi bar; she takes pity on Dae-su and takes him in.
Dae-su meets Woo-jin (Ji-tae Yu), a man who claims to be the one who imprisoned him. He offers to play a game with Dae-su: Find out why all this happened to him in the next five days. If he fails, someone close to him will die. If he succeeds, Woo-jin will kill himself.
Dae-su uses a half-remembered clue -- a piece of wrapper from from one of his meals in prison -- to track the delivery boys from a certain Chinese restaurant back to the private prison. There, he ties up the prison's manager and tortures him by tearing out his teeth with a claw hammer. Woo-jin did indeed have him locked up, but the only reason he would give is: "Oh Dae-su talks too much." Dae-su and Mi-do grow closer together, and one night the two of them make love while on the road.
With Mi-do's help, Dae-su follows a trail that leads back to his old high school, where Woo-jin was a fellow student. One day, as it turned out, Dae-su had spied on Woo-jin and his sister, who where having an incestuous relationship, and made the mistake of mentioning it to one of his own friends. The girl became pregnant, and she killed herself rather than face public humiliation. Dae-su confronts Woo-jin with all of this information, but Woo-jin has an even more devastating revelation. He gives Dae-su a photo album, the first picture of which is a family portrait of himself, his wife, and his daughter. The remaining photos in the album are of his daughter growing older -- and becoming Mi-do. By carefully manipulating both of their lives -- Dae-su's since his incarceration and Mi-do since her father vanished -- he was able to trick Dae-su into committing incest as well. Woo-jin, however, feels no shame; can Dae-su say the same?
Dae-su is horrified, and begs Woo-jin not to tell Mi-do, even going so far as to hack off his own tongue as a promise that he himself will never tell. With the thirst for vengeance that was also his sole reason for living finally spent, Woo-jin spares Mi-do from knowing, and shoots himself through the head.
In an epilogue set in a wintry landscape (it is possible this scene is meant to be symbolic and not literal), Dae-su goes to a hyponotist (whom Woo-jin apparently employed to manipulate Dae-su in prison) and asks for her help to forget what has happened to him. She uses hypnosis to split Dae-su into two personalities: the "Monster," who remembers the horrible truth of what happened, and the "original" Dae-su, who remembers nothing. The "Monster," she tells him, will die after taking eighty steps. As Mi-do finds Dae-su, a number of footprints are shown behind him; he has forgotten the secret of his true relationship to Mi-do. Unable to face the truth, Dae-su has sought and found ignorance and has chosen to live a life with Mi-do, still unaware, as his lover, an eerie smile creeping on his face as she embraces him.
An homage to The Count of Monte Cristo
Oldboy, and the manga it is based on, pays partial homage to The Count of Monte Cristo story. For instance, the protagonist is jailed in a private cell for a long time period (15 years in the film; 10 in the manga). Upon release, the protagonist is given money and new clothes, and seeks vengeance upon his captors. A strong theme of vengeance and revenge, as in the Monte Cristo story, pervades both the manga and the film. Also, in the film, Oh-Dae Su is referred to as "the Count of Monte Cristo" in jest.