I Saw the Devil

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June 25, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

It doesn’t require much prying into South Korea’s native cinema to recognise ‘vengeance’ as an oft-recurring theme. Beyond the most obvious example, Chan-wook Park’s remarkable trilogy on the subject, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance, there’s a wealth of other titles that find their foundations in violence enacted as repayment for past transgressions. Director Ji-woon Kim’s earlier A Bittersweet Life dabbled with a revenge plot too, although with airier results than one might typically associate with the genre. His latest feature, I Saw the Devil, stands as a more full-blooded account. Indeed, blood is its primary currency.

Uniting two of Korean cinema’s biggest stars, and certainly two of its most visible proponents in the west, I Saw the Devil features Min-sik Choi as the serial killer Kyung-chul and Byung-hun Lee as secret agent, Soo-hyeon Kim. Kyung-chul could hardly imagine the chain of events he is setting in motion as he kills his latest victim, indifferent to her pleas or her pregnant state. The girl is Soo-hyeon’s fiancée. Upon learning of her death, the government agent takes a leave of absence, but grieving is the last thing on his mind. Utilising his pull within the agency that employs him, he instead sets about hunting down the killer.

Defying immediate expectations, it only takes him about twenty minutes of movie time to find Kyung-chul and deliver a most vicious beating. The twist is that Soo-hyeon has not deemed this justice enough. It’s not enough to catch his nemesis, he’s instead going to go fishing – hooking Kyung-chul, patching him up and then releasing him again so that the chase can begin anew. No longer safe in the position of hunter, Kyung-chul now finds himself the hunted in a decidedly perverse game. Now each time he comes close to the realisation of his seemingly innate impulse, to rape and to kill, he is instead beaten to a bloody pulp. Alas, as one might expect from such a devious scheme, Kyung-chul is not one to be out-manoeuvred, especially when it comes to the perverse, and soon Soo-hyeon’s plan induces ramifications that will leave both men utterly devastated.

This two-fold narrative might call to mind Park’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance but in truth, perhaps unfortunately, it’s really not the same type of film at all. As it finds its stride, documenting the search for the murdered girl, it’s Joon-ho Bong and his cynical police-procedural Memories of Murder that offers closer initial parallels. When the police finally find the girl, or at least her head, the shock among the officers amidst the encroaching throng of frenzied reporters cause it to be spilled right in front of her father, an ex-chief of police.

The police will not be the source of justice in this picture and, staying true to that thesis, they remain fairly anonymous throughout. The few scenes we spend with them demonstrate an ambivalence towards Soo-hyeon’s unchecked quest and the results it yields. While they might have known that one of the originally listed suspects was guilty of ‘something,’ only the loose-cannon Soo-hyeon could land him in hospital with his groin mutilated through blunt force trauma, babbling confessions. In the end they strive to take command of the situation but by this stage they can make no difference. The forces at play are so poisonous that the authorities have nothing in their arsenal to prevent what has become inevitable. Meanwhile, Soo-hyeon’s role as an authority figure, given his status as a government agent, is even more scathing. He colludes with an ex-chief of police and members of his own agency, easily tracks down his prey, and then repeatedly releases him to satisfy his own craving, repeatedly endangering the citizenry in doing so.

This barbed depiction of authority and state-bodies manifests in many South Korean titles and seems inextricably tied to the country’s tumultuous past: occupation by the Japanese; division in the Korean war; puppet regimes and incommensurate ‘partnership’ with the United States; social unrest culminating in a presidential assassination; and finally some semblance of real independence as the final decade of the twentieth century rolled around. Kim’s film dips its toe into these waters but soon refocuses. In truth, for all the dressing up one might try in reading the various elements of I Saw the Devil, one can only be struck by how straightforward it actually is. Where Park’s films offered subversion, Kim wallows directly in the genre’s darkest details. Aside from the initial jabs recounted above, it’s not a convincing political parable akin to Bong’s The Host or the aforementioned Memories of Murder either. It’s a revenge film and within that most grim of genres it is one of the grimmest affairs possible.

It’s here that things get a little troublesome. There’s no doubt that the film denies that dark justice the genre usually enshrines. The final shot, featuring Soo-hyeon’s exit having achieved ‘victory,’ sees to that. His tears are not a muted affair, no thinly-veiled nod to vulnerability draped over otherwise unaffected tough guy posturing. He bawls uncontrollably. In re-releasing Chung-kyul, his grand game eventually made him complicit in his enemy’s crimes. One monster made another and between them they sharpened each other’s edges to create something more barbaric than what was there in the beginning. Nonetheless the focus of Kim’s film is troubling. It lacks the nuances of Park’s Mr. Vengeance that suggested a serious reframing, not just of vengeance and its legitimation but also of the widely accepted representation of those ideas within the film medium itself. There are just too many shortcuts here. Certainly the catharsis is tainted by a decidedly downbeat finale but the sheer bravura and frequency of the violence throughout seems to override and show up the flimsiness of any serious thematic inquiry.

To that end, I Saw the Devil can’t help but seem like a film full of allusion to other titles. The muted interiors of key locations and the methodology of many of the violent acts recall Saw or Hostel. The slashing of an Achilles tendon mirrors Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. As the sides of a character’s mouth split as his jaws are pulled apart, it clearly rouses images of Kakihara from Ichi the Killer. The gouts of blood from head wounds evoke ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano’s Violent Cop. The whirlwind slaying of two men in the confines of a moving car has the technical audacity of Children of Men but adds a potent new visceral layer. It’s not difficult to imagine that Kim, a student of cinema, has seen all these films and it seems he’s keen to top each and every one of them. The cost of such sustained brutality is that with each passing sequence, all facets beyond the immediacy of the physical act itself are lost. There was a reason the likes of Park and Kitano held their gaze on the grotesque only at key moments within their cinema. Kim’s film seems only driven to expand that visual and sensory level; dramatic weighting will have to wait for another day.

Granted, it’s not like Kim hasn’t made something of a feature out of his undeniable technical prowess. It works best in a no-holds-barred adventure yarn like the delirious and brilliant The Good the Bad and the Weird. Still, sometimes he seems to be hinting at greater depths and yet further inquiry invariably yields very little. A Bittersweet Life had moments of tremendous aesthetic beauty but its central thesis seemed rather flimsy. Its final developments came too late and amounted to too little. The same seems to be applicable here. The elements that suggest a scope grander than your typical revenge flick succumb to the pull of violence and spectacle. Kim seems more at home here. The marriage between form and content is never as natural as in his breakthrough hit A Tale of Two Sisters or his aforementioned Kimchee-Western1.

A primary problem is the depiction of the film’s villain, Chung-kyul. Veteran actor Min-sik Choi certainly invests the character with a wonderful swagger, alternating between utter menace and disarming calm. By that same token, by casting Choi, the character must draw comparisons with Lady Vengeance’s Mr. Baek, played by the same actor. Those comparisons recall a weakness in Park’s film that is also present here. That is to say, his villainy is so relentless and one-sided, so seemingly without basis, that it’s hard to really buy him as a character. If he were alone then perhaps we could allow Kim this flight of fancy, this despicable psychopath – rapist, sadist, and murderer – however Chung-kyul has friends that share his interests.

As the hunt goes on, he seeks respite with an old ally who lives in a remote and rather lavish mansion. This accomplice is another serial murderer who, as his lady-friend quietly watches on, devours plates of raw human flesh he harvests from the victims2 he stows in his private, adjoining abattoir. Hinting back to the aforementioned political comment, it is suggested that both these killers first met in some kind of insurrectionist camp. Korea’s fractured history apparently played a hand in making these men, these monsters. Still, the unfaltering psychosis they both display, while being both proud and fully aware of the treachery of their vices, can’t help but distract and detract from any plausibility the narrative might have initially commanded.

Said Nietzsche, “when you stare into the abyss the abyss stares back at you,” and so it follows that the greater the monstrosity of Chung-kyul then the greater the monster Soo-hyeon will become. It’s a nod towards the film’s central idea, to undercut the catharsis of a purportedly noble fight, but the arc that informs Soo-hyeon’s character seems rather forced. As Chung-kyul steers odds more to his favour it’s hard not to wonder how Soo-hyeon didn’t see it coming and how no one else managed to intervene either. The police may have been relegated to the background but towards the film’s climax they’re handed too many puzzle pieces to come up as short as they do. The only answer that would seem to fit is that, if everyone had been subject to the obvious, the story would have simply fallen apart in its final moments.

Meanwhile, the idea of undercutting the role of the hero and revenger Soo-hyeon is dogged by the fact that, for about two hours (i.e. the vast bulk) of the project’s runtime, he is an awesome superavenger – not entirely dissimilar to the elder brother in director Je-gyu Kang’s often risible war epic Tae Guk Gi3. If his fall from grace is swift and comes from a dizzying height well then it was also never very convincing to begin with. The broad mechanics of a fairytale, of pitch blacks and pristine whites, here don’t credibly shift to shades of grey.

Nonetheless, I Saw the Devil certainly packs a serious wallop as a down-and-dirty genre flick. Kim’s technical skills as a director remain near-unparalleled in this day and age. His high-concept choreography, of actors and the camera itself, easily invite comparisons to Kurosawa, Buñuel, or more contemporaneously, Alfonso Cuarón. His formal decisions rarely call attention to themselves but the effortless ebb and flow of the various agents of cinema within each shot is remarkable. Especially when one considers the scope of his setpieces.

The violence is frequent and utterly unrelenting. Gouts of blood, crunching bones, graphic pummelings and deformations suggest at times we might have wandered into Gaspar Noé’s latest outing. The whole film seems pitched as to remind us that, as James Quandt identified a ‘New French Extremism’4, Korea boasts an extremity all of its own. Indeed I Saw the Devil so pointedly gives itself over to barbarism that the country’s censorship board, an organisation that presides over many a gruesome picture, demanded 90 seconds of cuts before deeming it appropriate for domestic release. In this instance it’s difficult not to wonder if culling some of the more overt displays might actually have shielded the film’s core goal from its own worst inclinations.

Kim’s film seems quite at home amongst this grouping of modern films that openly indulge in graphic displays of physical mutilation, often with a sexual tinge, this ‘New Extremism.’ It also can’t help but hold some ties to the ‘grindhouse’ counter-cultural movement of 1970s American cinema. All the pieces are in place: violence as a fundamentally random actor, a good guy, a bad guy, and the enormous cost of their struggle totted up in blood.

Hollywood seems keen to revisit the grindhouse scene, remaking as many titles as it can, and the directors spearheading that impetus, notably Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth, openly claim inspiration from modern Korea. Furthermore, with the likes of Alexandre Aja linking the European ‘Extreme’ school to Hollywood with his involvement in the remake of the grindhouse classic, The Hills Have Eyes, it seems these various fields can’t help but intertwine. It’s hardly a more bizarre development than America’s wild-west being re-imagined by Italians (often filming in Spain) before being moved triumphantly to Mongolia’s Gobi desert for Kim’s The Good the Bad and the Weird.

Within this context, I Saw the Devil is a masterpiece. It easily outranks its (admittedly, usually goofy) contemporaries such as Haute tension, Inside, A Serbian Film, or Martyrs, if only because its narrative is undeniably more solid. Unfortunately such an achievement can’t help but seem subpar given Kim’s considerable talents. Chan-wook Park’s trilogy on the topic of revenge remains unequalled. Kim’s film is ferocious and masterfully composed but that same slickness belies its lack of substance. Its nods towards higher ideals are just that, vague gestures that add only the appearance of dimensionality. For those interested in such things, this film will prove a delight. It’s certainly everything the likes of Tony Scott’s frantic and useless Man on Fire was not, possessing both a bloodlust and a compositional skill that renders the heights of its violence, at times, genuinely shocking. The only problem is that we may become all the more like monsters for indulging.

1 A phrase coined by the director himself in relation to his The Good the Bad and the Weird. If Leone and his Italian cohorts made westerns of the spaghetti variety, then Korea’s national dish, kimchee, informs his film. Whatever you want to call it, it’s brilliant and deserves to be seen by everyone.

2 It’s worth noting, from the imposed perspective of voyeur, that both serial killers’ preferences dictate that they kill only beautiful, young women – usually stripped naked before their final demise.

3 Which, as a point of interest, features a small cameo for Min-sik Choi. Choi also had a small, but crucial, role in Kang’s Shiri.

4 A pejorative term Quandt coined in relation to a pattern he recognised amongst a number of French films. It has since been expanded by others to encompass Europe generally, including Sweden’s Lukas Moodysson and Denmark’s enfant terrible, Lars Von Trier. Wikipedia expands here.

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