WARNING: This blog contains spoilers.
For a couple of reasons, I had never seen the 2003 South Korean film Oldboy until last night (03 June 2012). It’s not that it hadn’t been recommended to me, it was simply one of those movies that took me forever to get around to watching. One one hand, I couldn’t justify renting it since it was streaming on Netflix; on the other hand, the Netflix version is a crappy dub. I hate dubbed films and can’t understand those who refuse to read subtitles, but that is an entirely different topic.
The film seems like a live-action anime feature, which makes sense since I later learned it was based upon a manga work. I know that manga pretty much just means a Japanese comic, but in my mind it sounds so much worse.
“What are some of your hobbies?”
“Well, I’m into manga…”
“You sick son of a bitch!”
…anyway. The most interesting thing about the film to me is how similar it is to the old Theban play Oedipus the King (or Oedipus Rex, Oidipous Tyrannos, et cetera) by Sophocles.
Key similarities are that the protagonist of Oldboy, Oh Dae-su, is punished for something he is unaware of, much like Oedipus, who was hobbled and left to die as an infant — later growing up for years in exile– while Oh Dae-su is held captive and tormented for fifteen years for an unknown reason, which also gives him time to disconnect with his family and reality. Coincidentally, both received their cruel treatment due to troubling information. For Oedipus, it was the prophecy of his rise to the throne by the murder of his father; for Oh Dae-su, it was accidentally sharing information that damaged the reputation of an acquaintance. Comparitively, a moral against gossip can be taken from Oldboy, but in Oedipus the King there is no stopping fate.
Oh Dae-su, although unaware, begins a relationship with his daughter. Oedipus, unaware, begins a relationship with his mother. In shame, Oedipus gauges out his eyes, Oh Dae-su cuts out his own tongue… their reasons, however are different. Oedipus doesn’t want to see the shame he has caused, while Oh Dae-su wants to prove to his tormenter that he will never talk again. Oedipus goes to Colonus with his daughter; Oh Dae-su reconnects with his, although the ending is ambiguous.
The key differences represent the changes in our culture. The people who saw Oedipus the King were treated to the performance of a story that they were already familiar with. It’s a perfect example of dramatic irony, where the audience knows what the characters do not. This is flipped in Oldboy, where at least one of the characters knows exactly what is going on, and the audience is as clueless and shocked as the protagonist. Also prophecy and the fates carry little weight with today’s culture, so Oh Dae-su is a victim of another man’s cruelty rather than a victim of his own destiny.
Another representation of change in culture is that the Greeks didn’t mind knowing the ending before they watched the work, but these days it’s as if we’re obsessed with being surprised. Think of Fight Club, The Usual Suspects, and the entire career of M. Night Shyamalan. Oldboy made top ten lists and was critically praised. While I’m not sure it will have the enduring quality of Sophocles’ works, its existence helps reaffirm the value of that old Greek’s play. It’s a great example of dressing up the ancient.
While I know no one will read this who hasn’t seen both, I would recommend that you recommend to your friends that if they liked Oldboy, perhaps they would like Oedipus the King—and vice-versa. If they are offended by Oedipus the King, by all means avoid watching Oldboy. The film, in its own way, keeps the classics alive. By reading them, you can too.
*There are rumors of Spike Lee directing an American version of Oldboy, but personally I think it would be better if Lee’s nemesis, Tyler Perry, were to direct his own version. He could play both Oh Dae-su and his daughter Mido. Tagline: “He escapes his captors to bring you laughter!” –Just an idea.