This post contains minor spoilers:
Most of the allure of Park Chanwook’s revenge thriller, Oldboy, is its style — not just its heightened and visceral visual style, but its narrative style, the way the film gracefully transitions between its most intimate human moments and its most dreadful scenes of torture and self-destruction. While watching the film for the first time it may seem excessively, perhaps needlessly, violent. But, in the end, all of the violence is justified, never becoming a gratuitous shock factor because it is all grounded somewhere inside the spectrum between truth and revenge and the protagonist’s struggle for both. As the movie progresses, the protagonist is never quite sure which one he wants more, eventually ending up with both, exemplifying the film’s pessimistic attitude toward emotional extremes, which is to say that the film does not have a happy ending. Given its premise, we shouldn’t expect it to.
Oldboy opens with our protagonist, Oh Dae-su, drunk and detained by the police before he is bailed out by his friend. Only a short time after being released, Oh Dae-su is suddenly kidnapped and held captive for 15 years. During his imprisonment, he never knows why he was taken or who his captor is. His only connection to the outside world is a TV. He learns from a news program that his wife has been murdered, the evidence suggesting that he is the culprit. Angered by being framed, Oh Dae-su plans an escape and for years trains himself to be in the necessary physical condition that will enable him to exact complete revenge on his captors. When the conditions are ripe, Oh Dae-su escapes and encounters situations and information that test his will to live, traversing the entirety of his emotional spectrum and back again.
The film presents multiple dichotomies — revenge and truth, laughing and weeping — through visuals, dialogue, and through a recurring motif: “Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep, and you weep alone.” In some scenes, it’s not clear if the characters are laughing or crying, representing the impossibility of distinguishing between the extremes of each:
Oh Dae-su laughs and cries as he exacts revenge on anyone who stands between him and his captor. His revenge takes him to emotional and physical limits. In an unprecedented action sequence reminiscent of a side-scrolling video game, Oh Dae-su encounters and defeats over a dozen men despite a knife being lodged in his back for almost the entire fight. It’s a marvelous sequence because of its cinematic style and because of Oh Dae-su’s relentless energy and desire for the truth.
But one must ask why Oh Dae-su wants to know the truth at all. It must have occurred to him that such a lengthy imprisonment might reflect the graveness of the reason he was put there in the first place. Nonetheless, Oh Dae-su eventually finds complete truth but only partial revenge. He learns that complete revenge does not exist, that the search for it is futile, that it can only turn one into a monster. In a harrowing scene during the film’s climax, Oh Dae-su appears to undergo some sort of schizophrenic fit, one half of his personality representing a man destroyed by an unendurable revelation, begging his captor to conceal it from the one person he loves most, the other half representing insatiable vengeance:
In the end, Oh Dae-su cannot handle the emotional torment of the full truth, perhaps cannot even comprehend it entirely. Out of desperation, he turns to someone who can possibly erase his memories, though the process does not appear to work considering one of the film’s final images — the face of the monster, the ultimate consequence of revenge:
We see numerous iterations of this face during the course of the film, most notably, when Oh Dae-su first promises to seek revenge on the one responsible for his imprisonment and the murder of his wife:
Oldboy’s pessimism toward complete truth manifests itself in the way Oh Dae-su yearns to forget it. He comes to understand, through excruciating violence and emotional and psychological torment, that not all truths should be known, that some are too great to bear. The film’s pessimism toward revenge is quite clear, that there is no end to it. Perhaps Oh Dae-su already understood the futility of revenge, but realized that, in his particular situation, only the path of vengeance could lead him to the truth.
From the beginning of the film to its conclusion, Oh Dae-su is forced by external factors to navigate dichotomies that test the human will. In every scene, he teeters on the edge of death, pushing the extremes of his emotional and physical spectrums, eventually realizing that the human body, fueled by rage, is unsustainable, that the only way to forget the truth is to die.