Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil (2010)
‘Battle not with monsters’

Noteworthy for being the first feature in which South Korean director Kim Jee-woon has no formal writing credit (and less so for the number of cuts — seven — which were made to appease the Korea Media Rating Board, a sensationalist story which is publicised anywhere the film plays internationally), I Saw the Devil is an undeniably engaging thriller, thanks in no small part to the slapstick mannerisms of lead actor Choi Min-sik and the streetwise populism of megastar Lee Byeong-heon. The film’s formidable pairing of internationally renowned stars, its relatively high profile crew including Lee Mo-gae (who also shot this year’s Secret Reunion, in addition to Kim’s A Tale of Two Sisters and The Good The Bad and The Weird) and Nam Na-young (who has edited mainstream works like Castaway on the Moon, Insadong Scandal, and The Doll Master), its spotless production values and big budget (the reported $6 million is extraordinary for a horror thriller) immediately suggest a multi-purpose event movie, a highly marketable package which its makers hope will capitalise on international territories and help rekindle industry fortunes in light of a poor 2009.

But if I Saw the Devil is indeed intended as a blockbuster then it’s a curious one with a far from expansive audience. The casting of Lee in the lead role of Kim Soo-hyeon is the only concession to a female demographic, while the presence of content that showcases violence, nudity, bloody gore, cannibalism and dismemberment is likely to appeal to a predominantly male adult audience (the film’s 18+ rating, which prohibits teenagers, severely limits its prospects at the box-office). Even in Korea, where it was distributed by Showbox, the marketing aestheticised the bloody conflict between the two stars, pairing them off in tight smoky close-ups, and barely noting the presence of other cast members. Crucially, I Saw the Devil premiered this August in Korea one week after its biggest rival, Lee Jeong-beom’s The Man From Nowhere, and it has not measured at all well since in aesthetic, critical or financial terms — this despite the reappearance of its major star (Choi Min-sik) after a five year screen absence.

Motivated by a need to punish the man who murdered his fiancée and then desecrated her body,
Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byeong-heon) embarks on a ruthless campaign of vigilantism which transforms him ultimately into the object of his own obsessive rage

I Saw the Devil opens with the discovery by the roadside of a stranded car and a vicious assault on its sole occupant, Joo-yeon (Oh San-ha). Her assailant, Kyeong-cheol (Choi), snatches her body from the scene and returns her to his lair where she is summarily executed, dismembered and the body parts deposited by a culvert shortly thereafter. However, it turns out that Joo-yeon’s fiancé Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee) is a highly skilled and well-regarded federal agent; with the Chief’s unspoken blessing, Soo-hyeon vows to hunt down the culprit and seek violent revenge against him. Thus his reason for tracking Kyeong-cheol is already a spurious one: convinced that Joo-yeon’s execution was itself a meaningless and predatory act, he requires neither an explanation nor necessarily a confession from the man responsible; he instead administers his own punishment, matching brute force with brute force. When Soo-hyeon finally overcomes his prey in the film’s key setpiece (a much publicised night sequence shot in a series of greenhouses), he tags Kyeong-cheol with a sensor, breaks one of his hands, and then leaves him in his own burial plot, ostensibly to die but in truth to recover. It is only after he has fully regained his composure and been tempted to assault another that Soo-hyeon next intervenes, a decision, partly judicious, which endows his vengeance-driven acts of violence with a peculiar moral quality.

On this very theme, Park Hoon-jung’s script plays fast and loose with an assortment of morally superior and inferior characters. On the one hand are those innocents who are overpowered by unimaginable evil, like Soo-hyeon and Joo-yeon, who are in many ways the contented couple happy with their lot before Kyeong-cheol tears them apart; in addition, there are Soo-hyeon’s father-in-law, ex-Squad Chief Jang (Jeon Gook-hwan), and his sister-in-law Se-yeon (Kim Yoon-seo), both virtuous people who implore him not to take revenge and risk throwing the family further into turmoil; and Han Song-I (Yoon Chae-yeong), a nurse working in the practice of the old doctor (Kim Jae-geon) who treats Kyeong-cheol after his first showdown with Soo-yeon. Fleshing out the pathological element of the film are the first two suspects on Soo hyeon’s hit list, Jjang-goo (Yoon Byeong-hee) and the unnamed cyclist (Kil Geum-seong); two taxi burglars (Lee Seol-goo and Jeong Mi-nam) who opportunistically prey on hitchhikers in the night; Kyeong-cheol’s old buddy Tae-joo (Choi Moo-seong), a cannibal whose pathology is never really explained (though he fits the cinematic tradition of the now obsolete slaughterhouse worker); and Tae-joo’s insane accomplice Se-jeong (Kim In-seo). As this short list demonstrates, I Saw the Devil is acute in presenting a range of virtues and vices for a distinct range of character types, not individuals. This places added pressure on actor Lee Byeong-heon who must work doubly hard to convey his character’s transformation from devastated victim to haunted perpetrator through several key exchanges with his animalistic adversary. For his part, Choi seems to be in his element (though no way near his best), trumping Robert De Niro’s sweaty Max Cady from Cape Fear (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1991) with a technically brilliant performance which sees him meting out remorseless forms of punishment in one scene and in the next tumbling from his car like a startled Foghorn Leghorn.

Since Choi’s Kyeong-cheol is classified as irredeemably psychotic from the outset, tension in the picture can only and does ultimately stem from those vengeful cinematic moments which appear to codify Soo-hyeon, the “good” man in this equation, as psychotic — at least in the tradition of these typically “Korean” / Shakespearean serial-killer films. It therefore follows a line of thrillers, procedurals and horrors — Nowhere to Hide (dir. Lee Myung-se, 1999), Park’s Vengeance trilogy (2002/2003/ 2005), A Bittersweet Life (dir. Kim Jee-woon, 2005), A Bloody Aria (dir. Won Shin-yeon, 2006), Beautiful Sunday (dir. Jin Kwang-gyo, 2007), The Chaser (dir. Na Hong-jin, 2008), The Man From Nowhere, even an icy drama like Yang Ik-joon’s sterling Breathless (2009) — which both renounce traditional distinctions of good and evil, and debunk the myth that violence can be in any way constructive or personally rewarding. As portrayed in this movie, vengeance distorts and disorients the hero ethically; I suspect it is not necessarily the monster that Soo-hyeon fears becoming, but that other state of being: isolated and widowed; heart-broken and alone. Soo-hyeon will fully crave the attention again of his soul-mate long after the credits have rolled and Kyeong-cheol’s body found, but Joo-yeon will never answer him, his faith in prayer will diminish year upon year, and so too his sense of purpose. What interests me about this film, then, is that the desire which drives Soo-hyeon to sadism and brutality does not destroy him — this experience, this course of action, while indescribably harrowing, lacking any semblance of a cathartic resolution, and almost certainly tarnishing the man forever, is in some way necessary.

It therefore detracts from the well-acknowledged pattern of the films noted above by shifting the emphasis away from salvation, and in a sense vengeance itself as an abstract concept, onto two core ideas instead: mechanical ritual, and mutual identification. In order for Soo-hyeon to truly experience and release grief he must revert to a truer nature. The film, therefore, taps into the mechanical act of the ritual itself to make its point: vengeance, in this context, can serve a purpose; rather than free Soo-hyeon from grief, it frees him to grieve. The memorable climactic shot in which Lee’s Soo-hyeon is seen wandering aimlessly in Kyeong-cheol’s neighbourhood utterly consumed by unbearable sorrow is an interesting one. Has the terrible nature of his obsession at last hit home? Or does he despair for his own salvation? I trust that neither concern matters to him; he grieves for Joo-yeon. The only other vengeance film to touch on a similar theme is the truly harrowing masterpiece, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, a film which ultimately has more to say on the reality and pain of grief than anything on offer here.

14 November, 2010


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