Friday, January 14, 2011

Far East Specials: I Saw the Devil

I Saw the Devil (2010, Jee-Woon Kim)

Revenge movies are a dime a dozen these days, meaning that finding the good ones poses something of a challenge. Were we to list which countries which produce the finest (admittedly an arbitrary criteria, but let us run with it anyhow), Korea could make a strong claim for top honours. The work of director Chan-Wook Park alone, with his memorable and artistically challenging Vengeance Trilogy, is of sufficient evidence and worthy of in-depth analysis, but that series is not the topic of the day (although if readers want that to be a topic in the future, all you need is ask…). Nay, today we discuss the latest from Park’s fellow countryman, Jee-Woon Kim, aptly titled I Saw the Devil.

A small part of me has to question what pertinence there was for director of Kim’s pedigree to venture into this very much tried and borderline tired genre, specifically given that his compatriot mentioned above gave vengeance thrillers such exquisite and royal treatment only a few years prior. The easy counter argument is ‘What does that matter, provided that the movie is good?’ Fair enough, but that necessarily brings us to the ultimate question, ‘Is I Saw the Devil any good?’ Well, it most certainly has some…memorable qualities, let there be no doubt of that. I find myself in a dilemma however, for if my answer to the question is ‘yes’, then people who cannot truly know what it is they shall be getting into might find themselves a little bit shell-shocked from a potentially unpleasant experience. If my answer is ‘no’, then I discourage people from seeing one of the more audacious and hysterically thrilling movies in recent years, possibly since the Vengeance Trilogy itself. Go figure. I choose a cautious middle ground, answering ‘yes’ with a large warning sign just underneath. The film’s story, if we are to assume that what transpires can be considered a story, has  Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-Hung Lee), a top security agent, seek vengeance after his lover is absolutely butchered by mentally deranged serial killer Kyung-Chul (Min-Shik Choi). His girlfriend’s father, a former cop who still holds ties with the police force, gets some inside info on the primary suspects and gives his blessing for Kim to track down the perpetrator. With the help of a hidden recorder and GPS signal, Kim follows Kyung-Chul from place to place, occasionally beating him senseless, only to let the man live and escape so he can beat him up some more later.

We do not know much about Kim Soo-hyeon, other than what he does for a living and that he and his gal were looking for a new neighbourhood to live in just before her grisly demise. The more I think of it, the further I arrive at the following conclusion: Kim is the director’s pawn to explore the extreme limits of what can be done in a vengeance thriller, both thematically and in terms of visuals. Byung-Jung Lee is perfectly fine in the role, honestly, but if we are talking about character development, there is nothing for him to do. Nothing at all. Director Jee-Woon Kim takes the bold step in presuming that the audience will automatically side with Kim. Think about it. Why should we not? He was clearly in a loving relationship with a woman who was prematurely taken from him by a man who obviously threw any rules of common decency out the window ages ago. Kim Soo-hyeon being a blank slate for the mayhem that follows paves the way for an even more disturbing revelation than anticipated, for in his personal mission to quench his thirst for revenge the audience witnesses the man who we assumed was on the side of good slip down the slope into the nether regions of evil. His thirst is an insatiable one. The film’s title, I Saw the Devil, is suddenly turned on its head. Kyung-Chul is never let off the hook, far from it in fact, but Kim demonstrates a form of maliciousness virtually on par with that of his opposite number, the supposed villain of the piece. By the film’s end, I questioned if the director had any sort of intention or commentary with the movie. Is the viewer to take away the notion that anybody can snap and become the devil? It would that plenty of movies, from Korea and elsewhere already explored that venue. The more I reminded myself of how blank a slate the character of Kim is, the clearer it became to me (feel free to comment) that Jee-Woon Kim intended to make an intense thriller with morally bankrupt characters. This is who they are, end of story. 

At around the midpoint, the protagonist receives a phone call from his girlfriend’s sister. She is disappointed in Kim’s behaviour, believing his mission, not necessarily him, to be useless. It will never bring his dead girlfriend back. Kim, sitting in the car he uses to follow Kyung-Chul wherever the latter may go, has little to offer in terms of an answer to her plea or an explanation as to why he cannot stop. It is an interesting scene not only because it challenges Kim but simultaneously challenges the viewer. At this point the vile, psychotic nature of Kim’s plan is clear, so are we still going along with it in our minds and hearts, and if so, what does that say about us, let alone Kim? Jee-Woon chooses to not prolong the phone conversation with an emotionally charged back and forth exchange between the two characters. Kim is just going to keep on doing what he has thus far.

The more evidently controversial aspect of the movie is the physical violence inflicted on many characters. Kyung-Chul, who preys on young woman and even girls, pulls out all the stops when the time comes to murder (and sometimes rape before murder) his helpless victims. Even when they are dead, his obsession with mutilation would make the bad guys from Eli Roth’s Hostel blush. Kim is just as guilty of engaging in acts of violence, the intensity of which is frequently ratcheted up to the tenth degree. The piece still has a very filmic quality to it, reminding the viewers that it is all just a movie. The camera is always set up nicely, with brilliant attention going into setting up the geography of specific locations. Taking a page out of the Chan-Wook Park school of filmmaking, oftentimes, right before a major event (an attack, a surprise) the camera will simply rest at a specific spot, observing the character in what they falsely believe to be a comfort zone. There are no frenetic edits and I would go so far as to say that I Saw the Devil offers one of the best shots I have ever seen in any movie (hint for those who have seen it: it involves dogging a bullet). 

Equally memorable is how brief snippets of comedy are inserted here and there, which seems to be a frequent occurrence in Korean filmmaking, regardless of how dark the given subject matter is. I am not going to sit here and argue how I Saw the Devil is practically a comedy because I do not think it is, but like his compatriots, Jee-Woon Kim understands that ingredients from several genres can be blended in together to make for a more fully satisfying cinematic experience. Even the despicable Kyung-Chul, expertly played by Oldboy himself Min-Shik Choi, has a couple of running gags throughout the picture.

I Saw the Devil is challenging for its depiction of violence, both in how people physically inflict in on others and in its philosophy. I think I have written this phrase before at Between the Seats, but the movie is not for everybody. What’s more, it probably is not for most people. It works overall as a thriller, although one can for forgiven for turning away at a few moments.

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