Oldboy (2003)

Food, Vengeance, and Cruel Irony

By Jack Wang

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Figure 1. Dae-su bites off the head of a live octopus in Korea’s traditional dish, san-najiki.

Made in Korea, Oldboy is a classic revenge story with a twist told through the life of Dae-su, who was abducted, thrown in a private prison, and then mysteriously released after fifteen years. The film begins right before Dae-su’s abduction, and ends shortly after the conclusion of his quest for vengeance. Old Boy is loud and crass, and with an ending so sickening yet profound that one will be left speechless in horror and awe. Within the chaos, the more subtle, yet important elements of Oldboy are easy to miss—one such element is food. Director Chan-wook chose what Dae-su ate with care. Although seemingly random, this essay will discuss why fried dumplings and octopus share the significance of representing Dae-su, one during his imprisonment, and the other after it.

During Dae-su’s fifteen years in prison, he not only spent every day in the same windowless room, but he also had to eat fried dumplings every meal. Even the most ambrosial delights will becomes nauseating garbage after so long. Dae-su’s lack of pleasure in eating is visualized in close-up shots of his face and of dumplings. His face never shows any emotion when eating; the dumplings look stale and cold, lacking the appetizing shade of golden yellow. Dae-su may have lost enjoyment in food through tedium, but he found something new. Just like the identity of his next meal, Dae-su’s determination for revenge became never-changing. This steel is evident in Dae-su’s eyes whenever he chomps down on another dumpling. The accompanied crunch of dumpling skin resembling the sound of crushing bones. It is this rage that makes him try the dumplings of hundreds of restaurants to find the one that sold his prison food; the pain of fifteen years forever tattooed onto his tongue. It is this anger that keeps him standing when he beats down twenty men even after getting stabbed in the back. Dumplings are a reminder of Dae-su’s pain—a symbol of his will.

We observe similar determination when Dae-su eats the san-najiki, or live octopus after his release. Sheer anger masks his face as he bites the head off of the octopus. The shaky camera mimics the nervous eyes of the sushi chef as the camera moves slightly to focus on the writhing limbs of the octopus, then back to Dae-su’s face again as he shoves the rest of the eight-legged creature into his mouth. The scene ends with a bird’s-eye-view of Dae-su passing out onto the sushi bar, fading to black as he chokes on the octopus’ tentacles. Chan-wook’s first person point-of-view makes the scene especially raw and gritty, seating the audience right at the table with Dae-su.

At the time of the scene, it may seem like a foreshowing of the fate of Dae-su’s enemies. After all, Oldboy is the story of Dae-su, who after over a decade of confinement and psychological torture, gets to exact revenge on his abuser? Alas, this is not the case. The octopus actually parallels Dae-su’s fate. Later scenes reveal that Dae-su is in fact not the seeker of revenge, but the target. In high school, Dae-su spread a rumor that inadvertently led to the suicide of a classmate’s lover. This classmate, Lee, then devotes his life for revenge against Dae-su. Although Lee eventually dies in front of Dae-su, the damage he has done to Dae-su is irreparable. Similar to the octopus, Dae-su brings down his enemy at practically the cost of his life.

Through these two food items, Director Chan-wook was able to highlight the essence of Dae-su’s life, revenge, and the cruel irony of his fate. The dumplings’ never-changing appearance throughout the film portrays Dae-su’s unwavering goal of vengeance. The octopus, on the other hand, secretly mocks Dae-su’s goal by representing the true situation of Dae-su as the prey, not the predator. The subtle use of food serve as a nice balance to the callous themes of Oldboy.

Works Cited:

Oldboy. Dir. Park Chan-wook. Perf. Choi Min-sik. N.p., n.d. Web.

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