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The Lacanian Mirror: Reflections on Oldboy

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The Lacanian Mirror: Reflections on Oldboy

According to Jacques Lacan in the “The Mirror Stage”, the stage is “an identification” in which the subject undergoes a transformation by assuming an image in the mirror (34). There is a “jubilant assumption of his specular image by the child” (34) as he admires the wholeness of the reflection and longs to identify with it. At the same time, however, the wholeness of the image is compared to the fragmented condition of the child’s body and is, thus, met with envy and a desire to dominate the threatening and sinister double. This early stage of development “situates the agency of the ego, before its social determination, in a fictional direction, which will always remain irreducible for the individual alone” (34). As Lacan elaborates, “this moment in which the mirror-stage comes to an end inaugurates, by the identification with the imago of the counterpart and the drama of primordial jealousy… the dialectic that will henceforth link the I to socially elaborated situations” (37). This entry into the Symbolic Order together with the restoration of language to the child brings the mirror stage to an entirely different level. The individual then undergoes a lifelong series of identification between his ego and the imaginary attributes of the object, thus contributing to the dynamism of the self. Therefore, the ability to think of the self as other and vice versa defines the idea of I and is the fundamentals of selfhood. Often seen as a metaphor for subjectivity, the mirror stage highlights an individual reflection and perception of the subject being studied.

Oldboy, by Korean director Park Chan-Wook, is a dark and compelling film about the idea of revenge which blinds the characters into violence. Oh Dae-su, the male protagonist, was held captive for no apparent reason in an isolated room, being constantly watched by his captors. After 15 years of solitary confinement, he is released and he seeks to find the truth which soon catches up with him and he finds out that the imprisonment is just a prelude of the greater terror that is to come. Lee Woo-jin, the mastermind behind the elaborate plans, challenges Dae-su to uncover the underlying reason for his confinement, putting the former’s life at stake, with that of the latter’s love interest, Mido. The discovery of the truth leads to another twist in the story, one that is too much for Dae-su to handle. A warped tale of vengeance and hate, the film seeks to uncover the violent and terrifying aspects of human nature.

In the film, it is observed that mirrors and its reflections are used as recurring motifs in the movie. This I found interesting, as the Lacanian concept of the mirror has been applied as a film theory by a number of critical writers such as Christian Metz and Laura Mulvey. Madan Sarup draws on their work in his book, Jacques Lacan, discussing how “the cinema involves us in the (Lacanian) Imaginary” (146) by drawing a parallel between the film spectator and the child looking at the mirror. It is, therefore, suggested that the mirror within the diegesis works as a reflective apparatus on two levels, for the character and the spectator simultaneously. With this in mind, the cinematic screen can be easily likened to a two-way mirror, often used for unobtrusive observation. Like in the set-up of the two-way mirror, the side of the observer has to be in darkness in order for him to remain undiscovered, which is similar to the cinema theatre. In this essay, I shall argue that while the mirror serves a practical function in the narrative or as part of brilliant cinematography, it also works as an imaginary two-way mirror in which the spectator and character reflect upon their ideal self, with the former being able to invade visually into the latter. By analyzing three scenes from the film, Oldboy, I shall examine the use of the mirror within the diegesis and what they symbolize for both the characters and the spectator simultaneously.

The first scene to be examined will be the one set in the science laboratory, where young Woo-jin is playfully trying to take pictures of Soo-ah, his sister. Curiosity gets the better of him and he begins to remove his sister’s underclothes, with little resistance from the latter. This prelude to their act of incest, takes an interesting twist when Soo-ah reaches out for a hand mirror and looks at herself through that mirror. It is also with this mirror that the spectator reaffirms the fact that Dae-su is peering in through the hole in the glass and is made aware of that. Later in the film, we understand that he was discovered by the siblings as Woo-jin mentions in the second scene to be discussed that “looking through the mirror reminds me of that day”. The mirror has a practical use in this instance as it serves to bring Dae-su back into the mise-en-scene without the frontal confrontation of the camera, lest the effect to be portrayed is lost. This effect illustrates the fact that the siblings were too engrossed in each other and the possibility of being caught was not among their immediate concerns.

There is symbolic meaning in this scene as well, which is highly relevant to the idea of identification as discussed by Lacan in “The Mirror Stage” (34). Smiling rather forcefully, but with obvious gratification, Soo-ah seems almost perverse in that moment of self-indulgence. One can see it as an attempt on Soo-ah’s part to identify with the “imago” (34), as introduced by Lacan, by means of assuring herself that the image mimics her actions. As Lacan suggests, she engages “in a series of gestures in which [she] experiences in play the relation between the movements assumed in the image and the reflected environment” (33). She sees herself and her surroundings in the mirror, being complete and sexually desirable, and thus obtains gratification from it. Soo-ah has been well known in the school for being a “prude”, as suggested by Dae-su’s best friend, Joo-hwan. This expected prudence, it might seem, has been as obstacle to her inner desires and thus, she finds a need to discover her sexuality. This was achieved with the sexual romp with her brother, which warrants the use of the mirror to signify her identification with her ideal-ego. However, there can be another reading of this scene with regards to the use of the mirror, though it contradicts what has been discussed so far. The use of the mirror in this scene can be attributed to the sinful nature of the incestuous



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