It took an Eastern artwork to help me understand one of the foundational art forms in the Western tradition. I never understood Greek tragedy until I saw the Korean film Oldboy (Park, 2003). Aristotle talks about the tragic emotions of fear and pity, but I never really experienced this allegedly unique feeling until I saw this movie.
The first half is a Kafka story. It’s about Oh Dae-su, an ordinary guy who is being punished for an unknown crime he doesn’t remember committing. This is the kind of world I had associated with Greek tragedy: a world where things don’t make sense, reward and punishment seem random and justice is not done. Sophocles’s Oedipus committed incest, but it’s not really his fault. He had no way of knowing. The cosmic deck was stacked against him and brought him to a fated ruin through no fault of his own. There was nothing he could have done to avoid it. If Oedipus has a tragic flaw, it is his desire to know. In an absurd universe knowledge only leads to more absurdity.
Oldboy starts in this sort of absurd universe (shared by both Kafka and Sophocles), but then there is a major twist in the story which turns the entire narrative on its head. The story shifts in a instant from mystery to tragedy. And here is where I felt tragic fear and pity for the first time. The film hits you in the gut. Yet, interestingly, Oldboy generates the Aristotelian tragic emotions without Sophoclean fatalism and absurdity. It turns out that Oh Dae-su was not being punished randomly. He shares with Oedipus the flawed desire to know. If he had just given up his need for the world to make sense (whether through justice or revenge), he could have avoided his suffering. It was not fated. And, when the horrifying and incestuous truth comes out, he, unlike Oedipus, actually deserves what he got.
(At least, that seems to be the perspective of the film. From a western perspective, it is not clear that he did anything wrong. He spread a “rumor”, but it was true. You have to see the film from an eastern perspective where public honor and shame are more important and dishonoring someone, even by revealing the truth, is a serious act.)
Contrast The Lovely Bones (Jackson, 2009). (I haven’t read the novel, so my comments are only about the film.) Here is another movie about giving up the need for revenge in a world that is less absurd than it seems. And here again we have the same sort of twist that recontextualizes the story into a different genre and thereby changes the meaning of the narrative.
The film starts like a Hitchcockian thriller. We are manipulated by the conventions of Hollywood film to expect justice to be done. The killer must be caught. Then, at the climax of the film, when the victim’s body is about to be discovered and the hero (the victim herself, Susie, narrating from beyond the grave) is about to solve the crime, so to speak, she chooses love instead.
Here Susie is able to make the choice here family members could not. Her father lets his marriage dissolve because he is obsessed with solving the crime and bringing the killer to justice. Her sister almost allows her estranged parents to have a loving reunion, but then can’t resist the chance to catch the killer and interjects the evidence into the scene. Susie, by contrast, chooses to be with her lost love, the one regret from her life. And thus she lets the killer get away. Her boyfriend Ray’s poem says it all: “If I had but an hour of love. If that be all is given me. An hour of love upon this earth. I would give my love to thee.” Love, not the need for justice or revenge, is what matters.
Thus the last half hour of the film becomes the a new movie. It reworks the last ten minutes of American Beauty. I understood what was happening intellectually, but it didn’t work for me. I didn’t feel the emotion. Director Peter Jackson wasn’t able to trump the Hitchcock plot he had established so well.
A large part of the problem for me was that I thought the filmmakers undermined their point by (seemingly) allowing Susie to get revenge on the killer. Admittedly, that is a literalistic way to read the final scenes. The point of the story is that the spirit of the dead lives on for a while until we are able to let go. Things happen that we mythically attribute to them, though it could never be scientifically proven that they caused them. The most significant of these possibly supernatural occurences are the eponymous “lovely bones” which “grow” in the space left by our loved ones’ absences and, through the spirit of those lost loves, bind us to one another. (The most obvious example of this binding in the film is the way Susie’s friends Ray and Ruth bond over her loss and eventually become lovers.) These bonds are obviously metaphorical; we can’t literally attribute them to Susie. So, literally speaking, in the end, the killer just happened to have been hit by an icicle. We didn’t see Susie do it. We just interpret it that way to bring order to the universe. We want his death to be an act of justice.
In a sense thinking Susie metaphorically killed the killer is no worse than thinking God has avenged Susie’s death: vengeance is mine saith the Lord. But, from a Christian perspective, there is a tension here. We are to forgive and love our enemies, not pray that God avenges us. Justice for the Christian should be the redemption of the killer — the transformation of Saul into Paul — not some sort of cosmic comeuppance. And, unless I’m mistaken, this is close to what the film itself has been arguing. We must let go of our Hollywood need for revenge and learn to see the good that comes from tragedy. We must learn to see that even a tragic life can be beautiful. At least that was the point until the last five minutes of the movie.