This video analyzes color as a subliminal narrative device in Chan-Wook Park's Oldboy.
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Video Transcript (Abridged):
For our time together today, I’m gonna analyze a film that continues to blow my mind. The first time I saw it, if I still smoked, I would have lit up a cigarette the second those credits started rolling. The film is Chan-Wook Park’s Oldboy, and if you’ve seen it, you probably know what I mean. If you haven’t seen Oldboy, for the love of God, stop this video now and watch it instead. I’m about to absolutely spoil the ending. In fact, you don’t even have to watch this video, just go watch Oldboy and I’ll be happy. But, don’t watch the 2013 American remake.
Oldboy is a story about vengeance, but not for the character you originally assumed. As you hopefully know, the twist ending reveals that Oh Dae-Su has been tricked the entire film. Because Oh Dae-Su gossiped about Woo-jin Lee’s incestuous relationship with his own sister, Lee locked him up for fifteen years only to manipulate Dae-Su into unknowingly having sex with his own daughter. The more interesting thing is, though, we were being prepared for this reality the entire film--we just didn’t realize it. Don’t blame yourself too harshly for not seeing it earlier if you didn’t. You were hypnotized--consciously led toward one conclusion, but subconsciously led toward another. Oldboy is a tricky film, but with a little analysis, its subliminal messaging becomes clear.
Many of these subliminal hints involve production design, specifically the use of three colors: violet, green, and red. You’ll notice each used prominently throughout the film. Violet dominates the scene which reveals why Lee is seeking revenge in the first place. You’ll also notice that the shattered violet pattern, used for many props, resembles this POV of Dae-Su witnessing Lee’s incest through broken glass. Violet also floods the frame as Lee describes how both Dae-Su and his daughter were hypnotized. Here’s my interpretation: violet represents hypnotic cues implanted within Dae-Su as well as the questions he should have been asking all along. Violet is a crack in the pavement Dae-Su passes over and ignores, a clock counting down to the inevitable doom that he’s too simple to see. He chooses to instead devour Lee’s trickery on either side of these violet clues. And that surrounding trickery is built on a bed of red and green.
These colors signify Lee’s repeating game of bait and switch. Green is Dae-Su running toward a trick and red represents the trick itself. In fact, red alone is everywhere: the sushi restaurant where Dae-Su meets his daughter, the room where he has sex with her, the Evergreen yearbook, and so much of both Dae-Su and his daughter’s wardrobe. Each of these instances is interspersed between bouts of green, the poisonous hue that controls the film’s color scheme to begin with. You may think this is contrived, and so did I--until I noticed an important shot during the climax. A laser pointer Lee uses to guide Dae-Su toward the disgusting reveal--the same device claimed to have the ability to kill Lee--is bright green until this short moment: the moment Dae-Su buys into another one of Lee’s many deceptions. Instead of killing Lee, as promised, the device plays a recording of Dae-Su having sex with his daughter. Lee baits him with green, but the moment Dae-Su bites, he’s demolished with red.
Now that we have a more contextual basis for what violent, green, and red mean, the ending of the film becomes far less ambiguous. Even though he’s dead, Lee is still haunting Dae-Su and his daughter. At the beginning of the film, Dae-Su meets a man attempting to commit suicide. This man, wearing violet, implants a phrase for Dae-Su to remember following the climax: “Even though I’m no better than a beast, don’t I have the right to live?” It’s this phrase, this hypnotic suggestion, that provokes his original hypnotist to return. She doesn’t hypnotize Dae-Su for his own benefit, but instead to intensify his internal suffering. Notice the metaphor she uses to hypnotize him: a monster within--whom knows his evil, incestuous secret--walks off toward its eventual death. It’s not a fictional mental self that walks off toward its death, it’s Dae-Su’s actual self: barreling through the snow, lit by luminous green inside the metaphor, and lead to his red dressed daughter. Lee not only manipulated Dae-Su into having sex with his daughter, he commissioned the hypnotist to erase the memory altogether--leaving Dae-Su to live out the rest of his life engaged within that same incestuous relationship.
Unpacking Oldboy in under ten minutes is difficult, simply because there’s so much worthwhile substance to discuss. It’s a prime example of truly powerful directing, and the intense preparation that makes any great film more than just a movie.