A Tragedy of the Monster
You think it is something crazy he did. He probably deserves it. To be put for 15 years in a single room without seeing the sun light, normal food and other people is what he earned. For a monster like him, it is okay. However, by the end of the movie even the most unsympathetic person will beg the sufferings of Oh Dae-su to end. In this essay, I want to investigate how the writers of ‘Oldboy’ not only were able to adapt the old Greek tragedy of Oedipus and use the smart psychological and cinematic techniques to capture what today is truly called a masterpiece, but also look at the character of Oh Dae-su and understand why the audience can relate to his unbearable pain.
Firstly, I would like to pose a question: ‘What are the Greek tragedy storytelling components?’
This movie perfectly balance all six elements: plot, character, thought, expression, spectacle and chorus. The other thing you should remember that the tragedy according to Aristotle needs to be shown not told. It means the actions not facts have to be the driven force of the story. The plot and the character of Oh Dae-su would not work if either of these elements became weaker.
So, why the story amazes us and we can relate to it?
The answer is that the story and the character are universal. To be more specific, if it would be the story of a gangster or a celebrity, then the audience would not sympathize with the character that much. Ordinary people do not know how it is like to kill people, to be kept in one room for 15 years as well. It is simply hard to relate to such things based on personal inexperience. Therefore, the tragedy is meant to stay as simple as possible. And that is what ‘Oldboy’ does.
When does the story turns out to be relatable?
There is a little obvious transition to the flashback that shows young Oh Dae-su who smokes a cigarette and misses his classes. He is famous among other students at his school. Now to that, we can relate. If we have not been this kind of teenager once, at least we might have known such kind of person before. It might seem stereotypical yet we should remember that simplicity here is the key. The transformation happens when we finally see the secret the main character kept. A boy and a girl run from each other in an empty classroom, the awkward silence keep them staring at each other and finally it slowly transforms into a sensual and sexual game — the prohibited relationship between the siblings. The rebellious and irresponsible teenage character of Oh Dae-su spread the gossips that lead to irrevocable consequences. With years, he forgot what had happened. He blamed himself deep in his heart but he never could really take the intolerable truth.
One of the main lessons from the movie is that every action has a consequence.
Has Oh Dae-su thought that the punishment for what he already had forgotten would be so harsh? I do not think so. He was ready physically. He killed or at least punished those who kept him in prison for 15 years. The character’s inability to understand that physical wounds mean nothing compared to emotional pain leads him to the endless sufferings. Coming back to the simplicity, it is obvious that the audience cannot understand multiple physical injures that the character had gotten, but surely, they could understand the climax and the unexpected tragedy of the story. For that reason, the key of a good tragedy is not only to show but also to keep the theme universal and simple. Once the truth was spoken and the final revenge was made, the character as well as the audience cannot get rid of it. While everyone has a different interpretation of the ending, it is useless to argue which of the story resolution is right. The only thing that we are left with are the universal questions such as: ‘What is love? And does it have any boundaries?’ ‘Does Oh Dae-su deserve to bear this harsh truth for the rest of his life?’ Unfortunately, these questions remained unanswered to us, and everyone is free to choose the best explanation that works for them.
I think it is easier to go to a comedy movie with your friends to have fun together, play video games and share jokes and laughs. However, it is harder to watch a drama movie, to bear the pain of a character or to support you loved ones once they had troubles in their lives. However, ‘Oldboy’ made us, ordinary people fully relate to the same pain with Oh Dae-su.
And that is why I would change the slogan of the movie to: “Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep, and you weep with Oldboy.”