“It’s Personal”: A Look at Oldboy’s Theme of Revenge

Disclaimers: I have three disclaimers before going into this analysis. In my discussion of Oldboy there will be some spoilers that give away the big twist ending. If you do not want to be spoiled, this is you chance to close the post, watch it, then come back. The second part is that this analysis is about what I believe the theme is for Oldboy not if I believe in the statement personally. Lastly, there will be a discussion of material that may be uncomfortable. I put this post under “read more” so you can safely navigate my blog. Without further ado, here’s my analysis of Oldboy.

Oldboy, directed by Park Chan-wook, while not my favorite movie, is definitely a movie that has stuck with me since I watched it in the Spring semester of my Sophomore year of college for History of Film. It was a visceral experience and one of the few movies that truly surprised me at the end. It also got me thinking about its theme. While the part of the Chan-wook’s The Vengeance Trilogy, I feel like the major theme here is examining the personal aspect of revenge and how our own actions can lead to revenge being placed on us.

The movie centers around our antagonist, Lee Woo-jin, getting revenge on our protagonist, Oh Dae-su, and Dae-su trying to figure out the why of that equation while also wanting revenge of his own for being locked away for 15 years. With the help of a sushi chef by the name of Mi-do, the two search for the answer within the allotted five days that Woo-jin gives them to discover his motive. It leads to Dae-Su discovering that he and Woo-jin went to school together and that he witnessed Woo-jin’s having sexual relations with his sister.

This is where the “it’s personal” idea comes in. What elevates the movie beyond a mere revenge story is that it highlights how connected we are and how being impersonal, whether intentional or unintentional, can ruin someone’s life. Dae-su unintentionally causes Woo-jin’s sister to commit suicide after gossiping about seeing the two to a friend not knowing they were siblings. The real kicker is that Dae-su went for more than a decade without realizing what he’s done and as we see him before he gets kidnapped, he comes off apathetic, just going through the motions. This is not to say that what Woo-jin did to him is right, just that Dae-su should have been more aware of his own actions. This theme that pervades throughout the movie and is exemplified through the quote stated at the beginning and end:  “Laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry, and you cry alone.”, the quote stating that crying only serves to bring people down whereas laughing is something that can benefit those around us.

This evolution of Dae-su’s change starts with the most infamous scene in the movie where we see him bashing the henchmen’s heads with a hammer, a tracking shot mirroring a side video game as the character tries to make their way to the final boss. As the film moves on it becomes more personal as we see Dae-su’s childhood friend get murdered by Woo-jin, Mi-do being threatened, and his trip to his old school. This evolution is paralleled by Dae-su’s growing intimacy with Mi-do as he lets someone in after the death of his wife years ago.

Despite the changes, Dae-su never truly apologizes for his actions and in essence, the movie punishes him for his lack of apology with a final reveal from Woo-jin: Mi-do is his daughter. Dae-su, in horror, begs Woo-jin to spare Mi-do the truth and cuts his own tongue, apologetically finally admitting and taking responsibility for his actions. If it feels like the film is on Woo-jin’s side, Woo-jin ultimately kills himself, keeping with the theme about personal actions because despite his revenge being fulfilled, he could not keep living. There is an implication that Woo-jin partially blames himself for his sister’s death, be it through pursuing their incestuous relationship or for not being able to save her in time. Whatever the case, Woo-jin ends his life as an apology for his own actions.

Ultimately, we have to ask if Dae-su did learn his lesson. I would say he is aware but has yet to put it into practice for his whole life. He cares enough about Mi-do to not let her know the truth but is also selfish enough by keeping up their relationship. While he was hypnotized at the end to forget the memories, it is implied he may still remember and is left with how to deal the with his predicament. While the movie punished Dae-su, it did not leave Woo-jin unaccountable, having his life end in suicide. In summary, the movie is about our personal actions causing and fueling the cycles of revenge.