Thoughts On: Oldboy (Oldeuboi, 2003)
Imprisoned for 15 years without knowing why, a man is set free and is looking for answers.
How do you live a genuinely meaningful life? This is an age-old question, and the crux of humanity’s greatest answer to this is: assume every moment of every day has transcendent meaning–meaning and worth beyond understanding–and accordingly react to each of those moments with the highest sense of moral right and grace that you can possibly conceive of. To be this ubermensch in an infinitely meaningful universe is, to my imagination, impossible. We all act imperfectly – and an awful lot of the time. What’s more, we all do the wrong things – and a lot more than we’d like to admit. In short, we all have a monster within us. This monster is somewhat separate from what Jung would refer to as the shadow. This monster is not the necessary darkness that all humans require to live a functional life, this monster is our faults – what some would refer to as our sins. But, what do we do about this monster when we are aware of what it means to live a genuinely meaningful life–and as a consequence of this become, yourself, the greatest ‘you’ possible; to live in the greatest world possible?
The only true answer to this is to never allow the monster to come into existence, or, when this monster is inevitably recognised to be riding on your back, you should destroy it and never let it come into being again. However, whilst this may be the true answer, it is not a real one – it is not a realistic one to say the least. People do the wrong thing all the time. It may be throwing a can in the general waste instead of the recycling bin. It may be forgetting you said you’d call someone back 30 minutes ago and then lying to them when you quickly call back, giving the excuse that ‘something came up’. It may be passing on a secret to a best friend that you know you probably shouldn’t be, but have enough faith in that person to not tell others. These are very minimal wrongs, but they form a tiny monster on your shoulder. And this monster can be so tiny that people can generally accept it; we cannot be perfect. (Let us not fool ourselves into believing that we are all saints carrying tiny monsters though). We accept a little (little as we can manage), suppressed monster because we know it can do no harm. But, what if every moment of every day has transcendent meaning greater than ourselves? Is this tiny monster, a grain of sand relative to the rocks that some people carry around, going to ruin our lives one day? Can these two philosophies of ultimate meaning and imperfection co-exist?
Generally, yes. If you be the best ‘you’ humanly possible, your life will be deeply meaningful and worthwhile. However, fate has a way of striking down those who are only 1 or 2 inches away from innocence; those who bare that human imperfection that cannot be shaken. We all know and fear this.
One of the greatest expressions of this anxiety is the story of Oedipus Rex. Descendant of a cursed monarchy, Oedipus is one day told that he is fated to sleep with his mother and kill his father. Assuming we all know this story, Oedipus, of course, ends up becoming a self-fulfilling prophet against all of his efforts. This is one of the great tragedies that we, as a species, have constructed and it is entirely predicated on our ideas of meaning, fate and monsters. The Oedipus story embodies a great existential cry from a being (human beings) that wants meaning, that wants perfection, but knows that they cannot fully attain this and so may fall prey to their own hamartia; a fatal flaw within them. When we look to Oldboy, we have the modern re-articulation of this great tragedy. Its narrative then perfectly balances ideas of the monster within Oh Dae-su, meaning and also nihilism within his journey towards truth, and unforgiving fate within Woo-jin Lee. With the end of this film then comes one unanswerable question in face of all of our ideas of meaning and righteousness: what do you do about the monster tied to everyone’s ankle? Do you commit suicide to escape this reality? Do you find a way to ignore the monster and all the mess that it can and has caused? Do you just try to smile through your tears and hope that the world laughs with you?
These are, implicitly, profoundly pessimistic and dark questions – questions that nonetheless should strike us all – that Oldboy somehow manages to ask with flair, buzz, vibrancy and comedy. This movie provides no answers – after all, there doesn’t seem to be any real answers to this constructed tragedy; just an emotional reaction – it only smacks you across the face with the reality of the world and your existential being within it. Deeply interwoven into the greatest of human anxieties, Oldboy is then a genuine masterpiece. If you have not seen this film, see it. If you have, another viewing surely won’t hurt.
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