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The Ending Of Oldboy Explained

Directed by Park Chan-wook, 2003's "Oldboy" is a neo-noir thriller that also stands out as being one of the best Korean movies of all time. "Oldboy" is loosely based on a manga created by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi, and the film makes up the middle part of Chan-wook's vengeance-themed trilogy. The story centers on a man named Oh Dae-su who's imprisoned in what amounts to a small hotel room for 15 years. When Dae-su is finally released, he begins searching for answers and seeking vengeance against the man who captured him.

Decades later "Oldboy" is still stunning for its incredible action, brilliant directing, and a plot that no one could have seen coming. The film inspired a 2013 remake by Spike Lee that has some big differences from the original and failed to match up to Chan-wook's masterpiece, but the attempt just goes to show how influential "Oldboy" has been over the years.

If you've recently seen the film for the first time, your head is probably still reeling from its intense ending. But even if you saw "Oldboy" back when it was first released, you'd be forgiven for struggling to make sense of every plot thread and story nuance. Here's the breakdown that completely explains the ending of "Oldboy."

Did Lee Woo-jin's plan really work out?

With all the twists and turns that make up the plot of "Oldboy," it can be easy to lose track of the grand master plan that has entirely derailed Oh Dae-su's life. Once he's released from his prison, Dae-su becomes consumed by revenge, and his life revolves around finding and killing the man who imprisoned him.

Dae-su's tormentor, Lee Woo-jin, is equally as compromised by his emotions. When they were in school together, Dae-su witnessed Woo-jin fondling his sister and inadvertently started a rumor about the two of them that spread through the school and caused Woo-jin's sister to take her own life.

Woo-jin doesn't just want to ruin Dae-su's life. He wants to make Dae-su experience all the shame, rage, and hatred that he's lived with throughout his entire life. He trapped Dae-su in a prison only so he would never witness his daughter growing up. Then Woo-jin used hypnotism to manipulate Dae-su into sleeping with his own daughter, believing that put the two of them on an equal footing. By the end of the film, Woo-jin is dead, and Dae-su is completely free, but in reality that was Woo-jin's plan from the very beginning.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

How did Lee Woo-jin make his fortune?

No part of Lee Woo-jin's plan could work without money. It's no small task keeping a man imprisoned and well-fed for 15 years, but that might not even be the most expensive piece of the entire scheme. Woo-jin also needed to pay a hypnotist, an entire gang of thugs, and a team to set up such intense surveillance on Dae-su and his family that he knew every intimate detail of their lives. All of that doesn't even account for the many times Woo-jin must have needed to pay a dry cleaner to remove blood from his suits.

Considering what else happens throughout the film, the question of how Woo-jin was able to pay for any part of his plan seems unimportant, but even though the movie doesn't give a direct answer, the hints we're given say a lot about Woo-jin's character. Woo-jin is a competent businessman, and ironically his profession isn't all that different than Dae-su's before he became imprisoned. The two of them both worked in professional corporate settings, and if Dae-su hadn't been locked up, he may have become as successful as Woo-jin. In his quest to ruin Dae-su's life, Woo-jin probably never even realized how alike the two of them are.

What happened to Oh Dae-su's wife?

On the night that Oh Dae-su is taken captive, he and his wife are supposed to be together celebrating their daughter's birthday, but he's drunk and out on the street. The scene establishes that while Dae-su has a family, maybe he's not the greatest father. Then, 15 years later when Dae-su has finally gotten free from his prison, he discovers that his wife is dead and that his daughter has been adopted by a Swedish family.

The realization hardly seems to faze Dae-su, but maybe that's just because some deep part of him is aware that it isn't true. By the end of the film, we learn that Dae-su has really been with his adult daughter since the night he left the prison. However, Lee Woo-jin never reveals what really happened to Dae-su's wife.

One way or another, it seems likely that Dae-su's wife died sometime in the years he was imprisoned. It's tempting to think that Woo-jin had her killed, but if that were true he probably would have bragged about it to Dae-su, and killing Dae-su's wife really has nothing to do with his plan overall, anyway. It seems more likely, then, that Dae-su's wife died more-or-less naturally, and Woo-jin just took that as an opportunity to advance his plans. He may be evil, but he also definitely has a streak of good luck running through his adult life. 

Was Park Cheol-woong really Lee Woo-jin's ally?

Park Cheol-woong owns and operates the secret prison that houses Oh Dae-su for 15 years. It's made clear that his prison has a wide range of customers, but it also seems that Oh Dae-su is his longest-term prisoner, which would make Lee Woo-jin the prison's biggest client. On top of agreeing to imprison Oh Dae-su for such a long period of time, Park Cheol-woong does a few other tasks for Lee Woo-jin throughout the film. He attacks Mi-do in her apartment, and later he brings Mi-do the box that holds her terrible family secret. However, even though he frequently does Lee Woo-jin's bidding, it's better to think of Park Cheol-woong as the criminal equivalent of a contract laborer than a true co-conspirator.

At the beginning of the film, Park Cheol-woong doesn't have any investment in the plan to torment Oh Dae-su. He's nothing more than a shady businessman, and for the right price, he'll do whatever he's asked. Lee Woo-jin never even reveals why he wants to have Oh Dae-us imprisoned. When Dae-su attacks Mr. Park after he's free, Mr. Park hands over all the information he has without question. After Dae-su rips Mr. Park's teeth out, the prison warden has more of a personal vendetta against him. Even then, though, he's just riding on Lee Woo-jin's coattails, never helping to create new twists in the plans himself. At the end of the day, Mr. Park is just a criminal opportunist who made the most of what came his way. 

Was Lee Woo-jin's sister really pregnant?

The core of Lee Woo-jin's hatred of Oh Dae-su has to do with his sister. When Dae-su begins recovering his memories from school, he recalls seeing Woo-jin and his sister kissing and fondling each other in an empty classroom. Dae-su tells his friend No Joo-hwan, and that ultimately sparks a rumor that spreads through their entire school.

When Woo-jin finally confronts Dae-su about what happened all those years ago, he tells a confusing version of the story. Woo-jin neither confirms nor denies what Dae-su saw, but instead insists that the rumor continued to evolve after Dae-su left school, eventually becoming so rampant that his own sister came to believe she was pregnant with Woo-jin's child. The rumor itself, Woo-jin seems to believe, caused her pregnancy.

Of course, Woo-jin's version of the story couldn't possibly be true. From his retelling, it seems that his sister really did get pregnant, and even though he's convinced himself that Dae-su's rumor worked some kind of magic, the truth is much banaler, and much darker. Woo-jin used Dae-su as a scapegoat, and his hatred of the man allowed Woo-jin to go on believing that he had no role in the events that led to his sister's death. As long as he held onto his thirst for revenge, he could continue believing his own lie.

Why didn't Lee Woo-jin kill Oh Dae-su?

Lee Woo-jin had nearly endless opportunities to kill his arch-enemy. He had Oh Dae-su trapped and within reach for over a decade, but once Oh Dae-su was back on the street, killing him still would have been easy for Woo-jin. However, even after Woo-jin revealed his entire plot to Dae-su — and Woo-jin's bodyguard Mr. Han was prepared to kill the man — Woo-jin spared his life.

Dae-su survived through the end of the film because Woo-jin was never able to move past his childhood shame. Even though he blamed Dae-su for his sister's death, deep down he knew that he was just as responsible for what happened to her. Woo-jin tricked Dae-su into sleeping with his own daughter, then revealed that information to him, because he believed that putting Dae-su in a similar situation as his own would finally free him from his shame.

Woo-jin's plan was never going to end in Dae-su's death, no matter how much he threatened it. All along he believed his plan was about torturing Dae-su, making him just as miserable as Woo-jin had been in the years following his sister's death. In reality, though, Woo-jin's plan was all about making Dae-su share in his own shame.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Why did Lee Woo-jin go through with killing himself?

After Lee Woo-jin reveals the full truth to Oh Dae-su and completely breaks down his enemy, his plan is complete. Everything that he's been hoping to achieve for decades has been accomplished, so you'd expect him to be elated or at least a little pleased with himself. Instead, after sparing Dae-su's life, Woo-jin steps into his personal elevator, pulls out a gun, and ends his life.

Woo-jin's actions throughout the film were so destructive, it's hard to imagine he would have been able to return to a normal life. Even with all his resources and money, it's likely Woo-jin would have been caught and made to answer for his crimes, though Woo-jin didn't end his life just to avoid the consequences of his actions.

Woo-jin had built his entire adult life around the idea of finding and punishing Dae-su. With his lengthy revenge quest finally complete, Woo-jin realized he had nothing else to live for. He had no friends, no family, and no real motivation to pursue his career outside of funding Dae-su's torment. On top of that, with Dae-su ruined, Woo-jin could no longer hide from his own involvement in his sister's death. In Woo-jin's final moments, all the grief and guilt surrounding his sister's death comes back to the surface and pushes him over the edge.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Did Oh Dae-su really forget everything?

After Lee Woo-jin dies, Oh Dae-su is free to live out the rest of his life, but he can't bear to go on knowing that Mi-do is really his daughter. Luckily for Dae-su, he lives in a strange reality where hypnotism is accessible and, based on his own experience at Woo-jin's hands, highly effective. Dae-su does the only thing he can imagine and tracks down the hypnotist who erased his school day memories and set him up to fall in love with his daughter, so he can ask her to manipulate his mind once again.

In the scene with Dae-su and the hypnotist, he gives her a sheet of paper telling her what he wants, and she helps him split his personality in two: "The Monster," who dies knowing a terrible secret, and Dae-su, who gets to live out the rest of his life in peace. The audience is never shown exactly what Dae-su requested of the hypnotist. Did she erase Dae-su's memory of sleeping with Mi-do, or did she erase his knowledge that Mi-do is his daughter?

Either way, Dae-su still retains some of his memories. Considering that when he goes to the hypnotist, Dae-su believes that Lee Woo-jin spared Mi-do from knowing the truth, it seems like a strong, albeit unsettling, possibility that Dae-su simply erased the truth of Mi-do's identity from his mind, so he could put the two of them on the same page.

Does Mi-do know the truth?

Part of Lee Woo-jin's plan involved telling Mi-do that she is Dae-su's daughter. Woo-jin even hired Park Cheol-woong to deliver a gift-wrapped box to Mi-do and to ensure that she opened it when Woo-jin wanted her to. At the last moment, as Dae-su begs and pleads at Woo-jin's feet for him to spare Mi-do from the truth, Woo-jin tells Cheol-woong that he can leave without making Mi-do open the box. 

The next time Mi-do is on-screen, she's found Dae-su out in the woods after the hypnotist altered his mind. She's seen comforting Dae-su, and the film ends with the two of them holding each other in the snow. Mi-do doesn't say one way or another if she looked inside the box, so the audience is left wondering how much she really knows about everything that happened throughout the film. 

There's no strong reason to think that Mi-do knows the truth. Woo-jin is undoubtedly evil, but he's also seemingly been a man of his word throughout the film, so it's safe to assume that he wasn't lying when he said Mi-do would be spared. For his part, Cheol-woong has no motivation to disobey Woo-jin's orders. Outside the context of the film, director Park Chan-wook has described Mi-do as "Somebody who is not privy to the truth," so it's likely that by the end of the film, Mi-do is completely in the dark. 

What happened to the hypnotist?

The hypnotist is one of the most mysterious characters in "Oldboy." She has borderline supernatural powers that dramatically impact the course of the story, but she also doesn't seem particularly aligned with anyone else's goals. She worked for Lee Woo-jin when he needed her, but she also agrees to help Oh Dae-su at the end of the film, despite the fact that he can't have access to much money after being imprisoned for 15 years. She's also the only character in the movie who never gets involved in violence of any kind.

It seems like the hypnotist will use whatever excuse is available to practice her abilities, whether that means helping people or ruining their lives. She's looking out for herself, and beyond practicing hypnotism she has no obvious goals. At the end of the film, Oh Dae-su is alone in the woods with the hypnotist having vanished after she erased his memory. All that's left of her is an empty chair. She's more of a supernatural force than a real human being, and she's probably gone off to find her next opportunity to manipulate someone's mind just for the sake of doing it.

What do Oh Dae-su and Mi-do do now?

The ending of "Oldboy" leaves plenty of room for the audience's imagination to get to work. Oh Dae-su and Mi-do are reunited, but Dae-su is missing a tongue, and his mind has been warped by the hypnotist's constant manipulation. The two of them may not be able to return to a "normal" life, but they're probably going to have a much more mundane existence after the credits roll.

Neither Dae-su nor Mi-do knows that they're related when the film ends, so they probably stay together. Dae-su is in such bad shape that when they make it back to the city, Mi-do will probably have to take care of him as she did at the beginning of the film all over again.

In the best-case scenario, their relationship will go on to be more like that of a caregiver and a patient, and Mi-do will go on to experience a full life while doing her best to make sure Dae-su is comfortable. In the worst-case scenario, the two of them will pick up their romantic relationship, living out a life that's maybe similar to what Lee Woo-jin had hoped for himself and his sister. Both endings are unsettling in their own way, but that's why "Oldboy" has had such a lasting impact.