Suicide and Cinema: What We Can Learn About Suicide from Movies

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Even though I'm no more than a monster - don't I, too, have the right to live?

-Quote from the film Oldboy (2003)

One of my interests outside of writing is film and movies. Recently I have been collecting movies including what are considered to be classics, some independent films, and a new genre for me-Asian horror and drama. One weekend I watched three very different movies and by sheer coincidence all three films had a theme of suicide. It dawned on me after watching these movies that suicide   is such a pervasive part of our humanity that this theme crosses all geographic boundaries and cultures. In this post we are going to explore some of the messages that film and movies give us about one of the most serious and potentially fatal symptoms of depression. Some of the questions we will try to answer include: Is there anything we can learn from film about the way a suicidal person thinks? Can we learn anything about cultural beliefs regarding taking one's life. What is the healing process for those who are left behind following a loved one's death to suicide? We will try to answer these questions and more from the framework of three vastly different movies from different cultures and film genres.

Film #1: OldBoy (2003)   Korean drama with English subtitles

Basic Plot: Oh Dae-Su is a seemingly average man who is kidnapped off the street and is imprisoned in an old motel room for fifteen years. During these years he has no contact with the outside world except through watching television. Reminiscent of the classic tale of revenge, The Count of Monte Cristo, Oh Dae-Su plots his revenge on his unknown captor during his imprisonment. Oh Dae-Su is released only to find that he has five days to figure out who was behind his imprisonment and his captor's motivation.

Notes: This is not a film for the faint hearted. The violence contained may remind you of films such as Pulp Fiction. It is one of those films you may have to watch twice to get the full impact and meaning. There are no words wasted in this film so it is vital to pay attention to all of the dialogue.

How this film depicts suicide: The movie begins with a dramatic scene where Oh Dae-Su is clutching onto a man's tie as he is leaning backwards over the roof of a building. When the suicidal man is brought back to safety he pleads, "Even though I'm no more than a monster - don't I, too, have the right to live?" This phrase is repeated in the film as the mantra of someone who is both contemplating suicide but also life. Revenge is the central theme of this movie and how it can keep a person alive. But once that revenge is achieved there is always a pain which never goes away.

Lessons Learned:

  • The suicidal person struggles with the belief that they are so horrible that they must die and the wish for forgiveness that will entitle them to life despite their transgressions. The person contemplating suicide may wonder if they deserve to live. The answer they come to may ultimately decide their fate.

  • Revenge is a motivation to both live and die. Grief and loss can precipitate both thoughts of revenge and suicide. Some suicides are a way to end the pain and some are motivated by anger and a need for revenge.

Film #2: The Apartment (1960)   An American classic categorized as a romantic comedy starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine.

Basic Plot: Jack Lemmon plays an insurance clerk who wants to rise up the corporate ladder. He lends out his apartment to the higher ups for a place where the executives could take their mistresses in exchange for promotions. When one of his bosses leaves his lover in tears (Fran played byShirley MacLaine) C.C. Baxter or "Bud" (Jack Lemmon) must deal with the emotional aftermath.

Note: I had never seen this movie before so I wasn't expecting suicide as the theme of a comedy. Yet the producer handled this heavy topic in a way that did not diminish the seriousness of suicide despite the movie's comedic moments. Both Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine are stellar in their performance.

How this film depicts suicide: Fran attempts suicide after her boss tells her that he will not leave his wife for her. She takes a bunch of pills from Bud's medicine cabinet. Baxter finds her unconscious and must call his neighbor, a doctor, to revive her. As Bud takes care of her they forge a relationship. In this movie the motivation for suicide is related to the grief over a romantic relationship gone wrong.

Lessons Learned: (The best way to share these bits of wisdom is from quotes in the movie)

  • Sometimes a person who attempts suicide may try it again so you have to be watchful for any signs of suicidal ideation and take away any obvious methods for self-harm. In this film Jack Lemmon took away all the razor blades.

DR. DREYFUSS : But you're not out of the woods yet, Baxter -- because most of them try it again

  • The person who attempts suicide may feel guilt or shame following the event.

FRAN: I'm so ashamed. Why didn't you just let me die?

BUD: What kind of talk is that? (He lowers her onto the bed)So you got a little over-emotional -- but you're fine now.

  • The person who has suicidal thoughts or who acts upon these thoughts may feel that nobody cares for them. It is imperative that you reach out and let them know that you care.

BUD: Please, Miss Kubelik, you got to promise me you won't do anything foolish.

FRAN: Who'd care?

BUD: I would.

Film #3: The Eye (2002) Horror/Thriller filmed in Hong Kong. Has English subtitles

Basic Plot: A young woman who is blind (Lee Sin-Je) is given a cornea transplant. When Lee Sin-Je awakens from her surgery she begins to see spirits. In an attempt to understand her new abilities she seeks to find information about her donor.

Note: Do not mistake this film for the American re-make. I would urge anyone who wants to see this movie to see the original foreign version.

How this film depicts suicide: The theme of suicide is explored many times in the stories of the spirits Lee Sin-Je can now see. One of the ghosts she sees is a young boy desperately searching for his report card. We then see that he jumps out of a window after not being believed by his parents that he has lost his report. Later in the film we witness the suicide of Lee Sin-Je's cornea donor who was persecuted for her psychic abilities and visions. Again the motivation for suicide is similar to the young school boy both are not believed and feel shame.

Lessons Learned: Once again the script itself reveals much depth into not just suicide but healing for those who have been left to deal with a loss due to suicide.

  • The people who lose a loved one to suicide often feel guilt and wonder what they could have done to prevent the suicide.

Father of boy who jumped from a window: If only we had believed him just that once or given him a chance to explain he might still be here playing video games.

  • There are some cultural and/or religious beliefs that someone who commits suicide will be a tormented spirit and that the way to resolve their pain is to find and rectify the reason for their loved one's death.

Movie quote: The souls of those who commit suicide..are obliged to repeat their painful deaths everyday To help him break out of this vicious cycle of pain we need to tackle the cause of his suicide. Only then can his soul leave this world in peace. These souls can't be consoled while their problems remain. There is only one way to help them, and that is to resolve what they left unsettled.

  • Survivors of suicide quite often feel angry at the family member or friend who has taken their life. Part of the healing process includes forgiving yourself and also forgiving the person who took their life. In some cultures it is believed that this healing process extends into the afterlife.

In The Eye we get to meet Ling, who is the cornea donor, and a spirit. We also meet Ling's mother who is angry at Ling and cannot let go of her anger until Lee Sin-Je comes to help. Here is the poignant part of the movie script where we see healing take place.

Ling's mother: I won't see her! I spent my whole life protecting her. I never once gave up on her but she gave up on herself! For that I can never forgive her! (Lee Sin-Je convinces Ling's mother to talk to her spirit.)

Ling: Mom...Help me.

Ling's mother: Ling, you were the one who left me. You were the one who left me.

Ling: Mom, help me.

Ling's mother: My girl, mommy's right here. Don't be afraid. No one can bully you anymore.

Ling: Mom, I'm so sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me!

Ling's mother: I've already forgiven you.

Clearly, forgiveness is a huge part of the healing process following suicide as so emotionally depicted in this film.

If you have ever felt suicidal you are not alone. If you are a survivor of suicide you are also not alone. Suicide, unfortunately, is a pervasive theme in most cultures. This theme is reflected in all the arts because it is so universal. We have much to learn about suicide and how to prevent it. There is much wisdom to be found in the arts including film. Movies are simply reflections of how we live, die, and cope in between.

We would like to hear from you now. Are there any films or movies which depict suicide that you feel have a greater message for hope or healing? We are always interested in your thoughts. Please share them here.