In 1988, a businessman named Oh Dae-soo was arrested for drinking on his daughter’s birthday. After his friend picks him up from the police station, they go to a phone booth for Oh to call home. On the way he is kidnapped by strangers. They wake up in a locked, windowless room where the only connection to the world is a hatch in the door. Watching TV, Oh learns that his wife has been murdered and he is the prime suspect. O tries to escape, but all attempts are in vain.
After 15 years, he wakes up on the roof of an unfamiliar house and goes to the city. A mysterious beggar gives him a mobile phone, which is called by his kidnapper, trying to explain the reason for O’s imprisonment. But O’s main goal is to find his daughter. Upon learning that his daughter has been adopted, he gives up trying to find her.
Oh’s kidnapper, rich man Lee Woo-jin, contacts Oh and gives him an ultimatum: if Oh figures out the meaning of his kidnapping within five days, Woo-jin will kill himself. If not, he will kill Mi Do, the woman Oh became intimate with after his release.
The next day, Oh, along with Mi Do, go to the school where the hero studied. In a school album, he finds a photo of the kidnapper and remembers seeing Lee making love to his sister once. Oh told his friend about it and the next day the whole school knew about it. Unable to endure judgment, Sister Li committed suicide.
Oh comes to Lee and says that he has found the reason for his imprisonment. Lee Woo Jin must kill himself. To which Lee reveals a secret to him: Mi Do, with whom O has a love affair, is his daughter. Oh begs not to tell Mi Do about this and, as a token of remorse, cuts out his tongue. Lee orders the guards to let him go and says that now that he has revealed the secret, Oh has no reason to live, and shoots himself in the head.
After a while, Oh finds the hypnotist and asks him to erase the memories of their love with Mi Do so that they can become a family. After that, she finds him and says that she loves him.
The meaning of the movie Oldboy
Although Oh is released from his imprisonment, the only way he can truly free himself is to find out why he was kidnapped. In the meantime, he lives in a “greater prison”. As the keeper of this secret, Li mocks Oh by saying, “Like a gazelle from the clutches of the hunter, like a bird from the clutches of the hunter, free yourself.” And the best way to get free, according to Lee, is money. Wu-jin is exorbitantly wealthy, making him practically omnipotent. With enough money, he can pay to put a man in jail for fifteen years, or order a man to cut off his hand, or order a doctor to install a switch for his pacemaker. Conversely, O is an ordinary hired worker whose name means “to overcome step by step”. He fights the system using common objects such as a hammer (a symbol of the proletariat) and a toothbrush.
Mirror reflection of reality
We can say that Oldboy reflects life in a capitalist society. This can be inferred from the fact that mirrors occupy a central place in the film. Oh tries to kill himself using a mirror shard. When Oh confronts Lee, he is shown in a mirror. Li’s sister uses a mirror to see Oh peeking at them. O’s face is reflected in the photo album as he looks through it. And during the last hypnosis, O sees the reflection of the monster in the window. These mirrors or mirrored surfaces reflect the fragmentation of the personality, which is normal for us, but for the people in the film it was frustrating. Oh asks himself while looking in the mirror, “Will I be able to go back to the old Oh Dae Soo after revenge?”
O resembles the Greek character Oedipus in many ways, from the sound of his name to his haircut. In mythology, Oedipus relentlessly pursues the truth against the advice of his wife and mother Jocasta. Oh pursues Lee Woo-jin against the advice of his girlfriend/daughter Mi Do. When the truth is revealed, Oedipus pierces his eyes with golden pins so as not to see all that he has done. A O cuts off his tongue with scissors. Wu Jin says that revenge is good for human health, it cleanses the body. But what happens when revenge is complete? Will those old painful feelings come back? Park Chan Wook tends to answer yes. Perhaps the only true salvation is to forget.
After Oh Dae Soo finds out about Mi Do’s whole situation, he asks the hypnotist to help him forget his secret and kill the “monster”. Even though the Bible proclaims the truth, it does not always set people free. According to the director, this is the only inaccuracy in the Bible.
How does the movie Oldboy end?
The ending is ambiguous. Standing under the snow with Mi Do, Oh Dae Soo smiles, but his smile quickly fades. Did he successfully forget everything? Is he laughing at the world? Or is he crying for this world alone?
Oh breaks into a wide smile, which then slowly turns into an expression of pain. He’s not sure the hypnosis worked. At this point, the director leaves his characters and ends their story, leaving the audience to decide their fate.
In one of the interviews, when asked about the meaning of the film’s ending, the director said that he wanted to make a film that does not have an unequivocal ending. He invited viewers to think for themselves about whether Oh managed to get rid of painful memories or not.