Oldboy is a complex knot of a problem whose ambiguities and refusal to make moral judgments make it, paradoxically, open to multiple interpretations that may not ever be completely reconcilable. I expect that for those who loved it, the odd shifts in perspective and tone are evidence of a deeper perspective on the narrative. They will see the weird character decisions as highly stylized and stylish directorial decisions elevating the film above a grubby realist melodrama. They will see the circular references as an autocritique gesturing to deeper symbolic readings. And those who don’t love it will find each of these things difficult or off-putting. I’m honestly not sure which camp I’m in – and I expect that some of what I didn’t really comprehend is as much a cultural chasm as a result of deliberate obfuscation. Being of an analytic persuasion, I think these very difficulties automatically elevate it above your garden variety revenge thriller.
I expect how you finally come to regard the film will depend quite a lot on the [SPOILER] at the film’s end.
The plot of the film is that as a young man Dae-su witnesses incest between siblings at his school and he tells one of his friends, who begins a rumour that the girl in the tryst is a slut. The rumours escalate to be that she is pregnant and she comes to believe them. She commits suicide rather than give birth to a produce of incest. Her brother becomes obsessed with revenge, eventually capturing Dae-su and imprisoning him for 15 years. He hypnotises Dae-su and his daughter to fall in love once he is freed, even erasing her original identity and giving her a new name. His plan unfolds perfectly, with Dae-su carefully orchestrated into the position of revenger, gradually learning the truth of what he did and what he has done. Once Woo-jin reveals the truth to Dae-su, his revenge is complete and he commits suicide. It is utterly preposterous from start to finish; depending on how you feel about the contradictions in presentation outlined above.
The film ends with the protagonist going to a hypnotist and asking her to erase the traumatic knowledge that he’s acquired over the course of the narrative – that he has been tricked into having sex with his own daughter in the most extreme revenge scenario I can recall. This perfectly encapsulates the ambiguity that the film has been working towards – he cannot live with his crime, but his solution entrenches that crime in his future because it allows him to continue his affair without the crippling guilt he feels. Trying to untangle that is a bit like one of this GNU recursions, because if ultimately he decides that it’s okay to continue, why have the memories erased. In fact, the enemy here is not the sin per se, but his own self knowledge. It is a precise mirror of the truth that Woo-jin’s sister could not live with, and his symbolic death mirrors her actual death. The film doesn’t precisely let Dae-su off the hook, and it certainly punishes Woo-jin – but it doesn’t quite condemn them either. Both are tragic protagonists, putting me in mind of similarly doomed Titus Andronicus and Oedipus, whose families were destroyed in the most brutal way for essentially senseless predestined or overdetermined reasons.