Oldboy is not for the faint of heart, but for everybody else it is one hell of a ride. The South Korean film makes Se7en look like Cinderella and director Chan-wook Park makes Quentin Tarantino look like Nicholas Sparks. For better or for worse, there are few movies comparable to Oldboy when it comes to pure intensity.
The plot starts simply: an average man, Dae-su (Min-sik Choi) is inexplicably imprisoned for 15 years, framed for the murder of his wife while imprisoned, and then suddenly released in equally inexplicable fashion. Upon his release, he meets both a young girl, Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang) and the man who had him imprisoned, Woo-jin Lee (Ji-tae Yu). Rather than killing Lee on the spot, Dae-su accepts the challenge to uncover the reason for his own imprisonment.
Dae-su’s journey for the truth is where the movie really takes a turn toward the completely awe-striking finale that involves incest, rumors, suicide, unknowing incest, and finally complete and utter human desperation in its rawest state. The climactic scene of the movie is jaw-dropping, cringeworthy, and incredible. The big reveal — something so coveted in movies these days — is truly unpredictable. So if you haven’t seen Oldboy, stop reading now!
Upon entering the final scenes of the film, both the viewer and Dae-su believe they have the upper hand. The truth, of course, is that only Lee knows the whole truth in its horrifying entirety. Lee, as he has been characterized the whole movie, is cold-bloodedly calm. This scene is no exception; rather it is the pinnacle that epitomizes and explains Lee’s composure throughout the movie. Lee holds all of the cards at all times, but as the climax gets going, it is Dae-su who thinks he has the royal flush out of the two.
Thus, Lee deliberately changes slowly and coolly as Dae-su plays his hand and reveals the truth he knows: that he saw Lee and his sister together intimately and started the rumor around school about their secret, incestual relationship. This rumor spiraled out of control and Lee’s sister began to believe she was pregnant, ultimately leading to her suicide. In this moment, Dae-su believes he has won, and he does not hide this fact. “I won,” he says, “so die like you promised”.
Still, Lee is terrifyingly docile. Both Dae-su and the audience are forced to ask themselves: why? Lee, kindly but slowly, answers with the shocking cause of his nature. Listen to my story, he urges us. He then shifts the playing field by explaining that the question isn’t why did he imprison Dae-su for 15 years, but rather, why did he let him go?
This beautiful piece of dialogue stands out in both this scene and the movie at large, which carries great weight because the writing in Oldboy is truly phenomenal. What Lee says resonates with Dae-su and the viewer alike and confirms our suspicions — due to his calmness — that he really will win out in the end.
Lee calls attention to a purple box. At that point the ending of Se7en popped right into mind, but it’s not Mi-do’s severed head in the box. It is a scrapbook. The first page is a photo of a young Dae-su with his wife and daughter. Then each successive page is a picture of his daughter as she grows up until…oh my god…Mi-do…is…his…daughter!
If you’ve seen Oldboy, you’re likely to have produced one (or all) of the following reactions: jaw dropping, screaming “holy shit!” or some other expletive, drawing out your inner Morgan Freeman at the end of Se7en and proclaiming “Lee has the upper hand!”
The scene continues in more cringe worthy fashion as Dae-su begs like a dog—literally—that Lee not tell Mi-do; he even cuts off his own tongue (again: not for the faint of heart). Min-sik Choi’s outstanding acting ability is on full display as Dae-su truly encapsulates human desperation in its rawest form (as he similarly does while first imprisoned) and Lee tries to suppress his laughter. More cringing comes when Dae-su presses the button that he thinks will kill Lee, instead it plays a recording of the first time he and Mi-do make love. The now ghastly sounds end one of the most earth-shattering scenes in movie history, as every viewer I’m sure mutters to themselves “this movie is messed up”.
While still recovering from that scene, the end comes, which, of course, is ambiguous. Did the hypnosis work on Dae-su? Or does he still know it’s his daughter? With his forced smile at the end, it could go either way. Quite frankly, though, the topic of discussion after seeing Oldboy is rarely debating the final scene (as with, say, the spinning totem in Inception). If you can even muster words immediately after the first viewing of the movie, all you can talk about is the climactic, penultimate scene. I still can’t stop thinking about it.