Old Boy Plot Synopsis
Old Boy is a South Korean cult classic film, dark and sombre and with the central theme of revenge and how unbridled vengeance can destroy oneself.
One dark rainy night the protagonist Oh Dae-su (played by the brilliant actor Choi Min-sik) finds himself abducted and incarcerated in a private prison. No explanation, no human contact, just total solitary confinement for 15 long years; enough to drive a person insane. That is till one day he miraculously escapes and starts hunting for the truth.
Does Oh Dae-su escape on his own?
Oh Dae-su is fed on fried dumplings and vengeance. One day, he accidentally gets hold of an additional metal chopstick that comes with his meal and starts using that to scrape away at a portion of the wall near his bed, in the hope of making an outlet for his escape. And for an indefinite period of time, he keeps scratching away with the spare metal chopstick at the wall in the hope of escaping to freedom.
But one fine day, just like that, after 15 years he suddenly finds himself somewhere on the roof of a building and no explanation, as to why after so many years he was released.
How does Oh Dae-su find his captor and what does he do?
Dae-su starts searching for his captor by searching for the food outlet from where he was fed the dumplings and befriends the chef Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung) once he finds the restaurant. He sees her chatting online with a stranger, called Evergreen, who refers to Dae-su as the ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ (a classic novel about a man unjustly imprisoned for 14 years).
His ears perk up and he realizes that this stranger is connected to his ordeal when Evergreen, asks him pointedly, “How’s life in a bigger prison, Mr. Oh Dae-su?”
Later, after Dae-su traces his ex-prison and acquires a tape which leads to a dead end, he visits his old friend, No Joo-hwan who runs an internet cafe. After a tearful reunion, the two set out to trace Evergreen. Joo-hwan manages to trace the ID and address to a building facing Dae-su’s apartment. He rushes to the address and sees his captor in the flesh, Lee Woo-jin (played by Yoo Ji-tae).
Woo-jin tells Oh Dae-su that it’s all a game. He’ll give Dae-su five days to find the answers to all his questions. If Dae-su succeeds, Woo-jin will kill himself. Else he’ll kill Mi-do just like he’ll kill every woman whom Dae-su loves. A furious Dae-su tries to kill him but stops when Woo-jin reminds him that if he’s killed, Dae-su will never get the answer to his burning queries. Dae-su’s curiosity gets the better of him so he decides to torture Woo-jin instead.
But again with a calm smile, Woo-jin tells him that he has a pacemaker for his weak heart and will never survive the torture. Moreover, Woo-jin shows him a remote of the pacemaker and threatens to kill himself if Dae-su tries to torture him, thereby depriving Dae-su of ever knowing the answers to his questions. Dae-su is in a major conundrum, and stands helplessly as Woo-jin walks away.
Was Oh Dae-su ever really free when he escaped his prison?
Lee Woo-jin is obsessed with constantly causing emotional pain and trauma to Oh Dae-su and having him freed is all part of a game. His captor uses the power of hypnotic suggestion to control both Oh Dae-su and Mi-do and make them talk and act in a particular way. Oh Dae-su suddenly finds himself living with the young woman and falling in love with her.
He is constantly under surveillance and his tormentor keeps toying with him in newer and more innovative ways to mentally and emotionally torture him. At the same time, he ensures that both Dae-su and Mi-do are kept away from physical harm even if it includes shooting his own bodyguard.
Dae-su’s progress is all engineered by Lee Woo-jin — Dae-su finding his prison and the tape; meeting Joo-hwan in an internet cafe; finding Woo-jin in the building next to his apartment; finding his goons led by Mr. Park molesting Mi-do. Woo-jin also ensures that Park does not truly physically harm Dae-su by giving him a hefty bribe.
Dae-su and Mi-do try to flee, they drive off and try to hide, go incognito, but Lee Woo-jin has put trackers on them and is aware of every word they speak and every move they make. In an act of perversion, he also records them making love and visits them post-coitus after having rendered them unconscious with sarin gas.
Why is Lee Woo-jin so hellbent on punishing Oh Dae-su?
Oh Dae-su manages to get rid of all the tracers and bugs and looks into his persecutor with the help of No Joo-hwan and Mi-do and finds Evergreen Old Boys, Sangnok High School’s alumni homepage.
It turns out that Oh Dae-su, No Joo-hwan and Lee Woo-jin went to the same Sangnok school as Woo-jin’s sister, Lee Soo-ah. She was in Oh Dae-su’s batch and he fancied her. A few days before he was transferred to another school in another city, he found the girl in a sexually intimate situation with none other than her own brother, Woo-jin.
The young Oh Dae-su innocently blurts what he sees to No Joo-hwan. Little did he know that this one innocuous act would lead to his doom. Word soon spreads that Soo-ah is pregnant with her brother’s child. Unable to bear the shame, the girl commits suicide. Lee Woo-jin is so distraught with grief, that he convinces himself that he has not impregnated his sister.
He believes that the story started by Oh Dae-su is a rumour. According to him, Oh Dae-su’s words are responsible for her pregnancy and subsequent death. And Lee Woo-jin’s trauma is so intense, that he dedicates the rest of his life to exact vengeance on Oh Dae-su and making him suffer the same hell that he had been thrown into.
What is Lee Woo-jin’s ultimate revenge?
Lee Woo-jin has tons of money at his disposal and he designs a process of torture that could put the devil to shame. He waits patiently for years till Oh Dae-su marries and his daughter turns three. Dae-su is abducted on her third birthday and his wife is killed in such a way that circumstantial evidence points to him as the killer.
The orphaned daughter is taken care of by Woo-jin without her knowledge. When she attains adulthood, she meets Oh Dae-su just as he is released. That daughter turns out to be Mi-do.
Lee Woo-jin then hires a professional hypnotist to put both father and daughter in a hypnotic spell which ensures that Oh Dae-su goes to Mi-do’s restaurant and the two start living together. Since they are united by DNA, there is a natural affinity between them. And since they don’t know that they are related, they misunderstand the familial love that they share, which is part of Lee Woo-jin’s depraved plan – for Oh Dae-su to commit incest.
When Oh Dae-su finally discovers the awful truth, he is shattered. His dignity is gone, his humanity in shambles, he begs forgiveness for his error and piteously pleads with Woo-jin not to reveal the awful truth to his daughter since she’s blameless. As penance for his ‘crime’, since it was his loose tongue which killed Soo-ah, Dae-su cuts off his tongue. Woo-jin relents and instructs his lackey, Park not to reveal the truth to Mi-do who’s in his custody.
He also finds a cathartic release on seeing the intensity of Oh Dae-su’s trauma. He starts chuckling to himself but can’t hide his tears over his dead sister’s memory. He has attained his goal and gotten his vengeance to which he had dedicated almost three decades, and now he has no more reason to live. Lee Woo-jin walks off and shoots himself.
Does Oh Dae-su find peace and liberation?
In Old Boy’s epilogue, Oh Dae-su meets Woo-jin’s hypnotist and requests her to wipe his memory of his incestuous relationship to which she acquiesces. She puts a spell on him saying that he will be split into two personas. The one who doesn’t know the secret will be “Oh Dae-su.” The other one who knows the awful truth will be “The Monster.” The Monster will turn around, start walking and with every step will age and finally die.
He wakes up in the snow and realizes that he has walked a few steps from where he was seated sometime back. Mi-do arrives and hugs him and declares her love for him. Dae-su smiles but there is agony and bitterness in his smile. It is an open ending, where one is not sure whether the hypnosis worked or whether the man we see hugging Mi-do is the Monster who knows the truth.