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Oldboy and Oedipus

Posted by Kenneth Shinozuka on December 23, 2014 at 11:10 AM

POWERLESS OR POWERFUL?

The Role of Individual Choice in Determining the Fates of Oh Dae-Su and Oedipus in Oldboy and Oedipus Rex


By Kenneth Shinozuka

December 23, 2014



Much like the collapse of just one domino can topple a chain of multiple dominoes, one crime can beget a tragic cycle of vengeance that entraps more victims as its scope expands beyond the misdeed that was initially perpetuated. The protagonists Oh Dae-su and Oedipus in Park Chan-wook’s 2003 film “Oldboy” and Sophocles’ tragic play “Oedipus Rex,” respectively, make a conscious decision to determine their involvement in past transgressions. Both characters bring misery onto themselves when they choose to learn the unforgivable nature of their actions, which they may not have been aware of at the time they committed them. Thus, though their deeds may have produced consequences that did not accurately reflect their intentions, Oedipus and Oh Dae-Su determine their own fates; Oedipus’ commitment to finding the truth about his past and Oh’s tragic flaw, more so than external forces beyond their control, lead to their respective punishments.


When Oedipus has sex with Iocasta, he is unaware that he is committing incest with his mother. It is not until the prophet Tiresias alleges that he is both “son and husband” to the woman who bore him that Oedipus begins to suspect his relationship with her. Even though Iocasta assures him that “many men, in dreams, have lain with their mothers,” Oedipus nonetheless “fears his [mother’s] bed” (Sophocles, 51). Even after Iocasta implores that he “never learn who [he is]” and attempts to thwart him from discovering more about his past, Oedipus is resolute in his determination “to know about [his birth], however base [it is]” (Sophocles, 57). He is willing to bear the dreadful hearing of dreadful speech in order to determine if he committed the acts of which the prophecy has accused him. In Oldboy, Oh is driven by a similar desire to discover the truth, intent on discovering the motives of the people who abducted him and held him captive in solitary confinement for fifteen years. With the help of a young female chef, Mi-do, he tortures everyone who obstructs him on his path to identify his captor. When he finally encounters Lee Woo-jin, the man who jailed him, he finds himself ensnared in a dilemma, unsure if he desires to “seek revenge” by shooting Lee or “find the truth” by ascertaining why he was imprisoned. Even though “seeking revenge is the best cure for someone who got hurt” as grievously as Oh, he still chooses not to pull the trigger. Hence, the destructive peripeteia that he experienced at the end of the film could have been avoided if he had made the decision to kill Lee. Both Oedipus and Oh did not have to confront the truth if they had chosen not to be curious about their pasts, as discussed in greater detail in the upcoming paragraphs.


When the shepherd corroborates Oedipus’ apprehension that he slept with his mother, the king becomes utterly despondent. Although he had braced himself to hear the truth, he still wasn’t fully prepared to embrace it. After his wife hangs herself, Oedipus becomes unable to “look on the misery about [him]” and blinds himself by plunging his wife’s brooches into his eyeballs (Sophocles, 69). Before Oedipus exiles himself out of Thebes, the Chorus takes pity upon him and cries, “Would God you had never found out!” (Sophocles, 72) This choice of language is notable; if Oedipus had “never found out” that he engaged in incest with his mother, he may not have been condemned to eternal misery. The realization of the truth is what prompts his suffering; only after he figures out that he was “damned in his birth, damned in his marriage” does he wish that he may “look on [Light] for the last time” and begin to feel the burden of guilt that precipitates his desire to blind himself (Sophocles, 64). Thus, if Oedipus had never launched himself on the line of questioning that led to his anagnorisis, he would not have suffered from the excruciating pain of the truth. In summary, his despair was a direct consequence of his choice to learn about his past.


As Oh becomes more emotionally intimate with Mi-do and later has sex with her, he receives some tips from Lee that point him in the right direction; later, he recalls a time in high school when he inadvertently spread a rumor that Lee slept with his own sister (Soo-ah), leading her to kill herself. After Oh confesses that he is culpable for Soo-ah’s suicide, Lee reveals that Mi-do is actually Oh’s daughter, whom Oh could not recognize after his fifteen-year separation from her. Lee, who hypnotized Mi-do into falling in love with Oh, intended Oh to undergo a heavy emotional torment that would be similar to the pain that Lee suffered when he lost his sister.


Upon learning the truth, Oh, furious that he has committed incest with his own daughter, smashes his body against a series of glass objects. One by one, the objects shatter. In a broader sense, Oh’s actions have fractured the fragile world around him. Unlike Oedipus, Oh possesses total control over his actions up until the point that he is imprisoned. Whereas Oedipus was fated to have sex with his mother, Oh is not fated by a god or driven by an unconscious, uncontrollable desire to defame Soo-ah by alleging that she had engaged in incest with her brother. Instead, his fatal flaw – his talkativeness – caused him to spread the rumor that begot her suicide. Lee states that his ultimate reason for jailing Oh was that “Oh… talked too much.” Even Oh’s closest friend is reluctant to give an answer to Oh’s question: “Did I really talk too much?” As Lee argues, “It was Oh Dae-su’s tongue that got my sister pregnant.” If Oh had decided not to speak indiscreetly about the incest occurring between Lee and Soo-ah, he would not have elicited the gossip that caused Soo-ah’s suicide. To this extent, he is arguably more blameworthy for his crime than Oedipus. Just as Oedipus stabs his eyes, which were too blind to perceive the depravity of his actions, Oh cuts his own tongue, whose loquaciousness spawned his downfall.


Oh could have saved himself from his punishment if he had kept quiet about the sexual relations that he had witnessed between Lee and his sister. However, even if he had failed to restrain his own tongue, he did not have to seek the reasons for his imprisonment. Just as Oedipus’ determination to discover the truth causes him to reach the epiphany that leads to his downfall, Oh would not have realized that he had committed incest with his daughter if he simply hadn’t tried to determine from Lee why he had been imprisoned. As demonstrated above, Lee could not have revealed that Oh had had sex with his daughter if Oh had killed his captor earlier in the film. Oedipus and Oh possess total control over their circumstances, even though it may seem that they were fated to carry out the transgressions for which they were punished. Even though the god Apollo “brought [his] sick, sick fate upon [him],” Oedipus did not have to suffer from blindness in Oedipus Rex if he had simply refused to determine whether or not he had executed the prophecy determined before his birth. Although Oh was hypnotized into falling in love with Mi-do and had no option but to have sex with her, he wouldn’t have committed incest with his daughter in the first place if he had chosen not to let his tongue loose about Soo-ah’s relationship with Lee. Additionally, Oh could have hidden from the truth and thereby precluded his misery if he had decided to murder Lee.

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