Because this was the movie recommended to me after having so thoroughly enjoyed Memento, I will make a brief compare and contrast between two pictures.
Is revenge bad?
Characters in both films employ revenge not as means to satisfy their baser desires, but as catalysts to not give up on life. This impulse has so consumed their lives that they do not live for it, as much as they live because of it.
In Memento, Lenny (Guy Pearce) has to keep chasing John G’s until the end of his days, or else he’ll be forced to face the truth of having killed his wife and lost his mind.
In OldBoy, the minute there are no more strings to pull on the elaborate punishment he’s been putting his victim through, Woo-Jin (Yoo Ji-Tae) shoots himself in the head.
Another aspect in which both films are similar is in how the main characters differ from the usual protagonist audiences have come to expect. While not always noble, main protagonists must possess some traits that should make the distinction between them and the bad guys very clear, so it becomes more easy to cheer for them.
In Memento, Lenny is a thief and a murderer, not to mention an asshole; in OldBoy, Dae-Su (Choi Min-Sik) is guilty of less heinous accusations, but he is still a drunkard, a womanizer and a lousy father. Even after repenting from past sins, he does not become the hero of the story. The showdown at the penthouse, which is like nothing I’ve ever seen, shows him as a pitiful excuse for a man. Indeed he will later call himself no better than a wild beast.
Is this why both movies are so wildly effective? Or maybe we have become so accustomed to heroes that are hard to emulate but easy to admire, that when confronted with characters that display some of our worst flaws we tend to cheer them, since we might find ourselves more easily resembled in desires of vengeance than in acts of forgiveness.
Both films end on a dark note. Lenny will go on in search of the next John G, or be tricked into killing another person who he thinks is guilty for what happened to him. Dae-Su has either forgotten the horrific truth that forced him to rip out his tongue, or he has not.
Whatever the case, they will be living a lie. That’s a terrible final image for the audience to take home with. It has been said that movies are the myths of our time.
I hope that after watching Memento and OldBoy, audiences tremble at the idea of what may happen when forgiveness is not an option.