Thursday, 11 August 2011

I Saw the Devil (2010)


Directed by Jee-woon Kim

South Korean filmmaker Jee-woon Kim continues to enjoy a remarkable level of distribution in the West. His latest film I Saw the Devil was paraded around the festival circuit, before receiving relatively wide distribution in the both the US and the UK. Kim first emerged as a name of note with his debut film The Quiet Family (1998) a comedy/horror film which was loosely remade in typically excessive fashion by Takashi Miike under the moniker The Happiness of the Katakuris (2002). Although interesting, his debut film was left in the dust with the release of A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), a stylish psychological horror film clearly inspired by the popularity of J-horror. This excellent film was remade in America as The Uninvited (2009). The result was a predictably desultory and pathetic re-imagining bled dry of all the aspects that made the original so engaging. Kim confirmed his generic utility with A Bittersweet Life (2005) and The Good, The Bad and The Weird (2008). The former a wonderfully energetic, but incredibly violent gangster movie, and the latter a sprawling western adventure inspired by Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. All of these films have received above average distribution for South Korean films, which is a testament to Kim’s ability to craft generically satisfying material that still manages to push the boundaries of the form. In comparison to his previous films, I Saw the Devil is significantly less interesting. It is not a failure, but it is perhaps Kim’s first stumble, in a career that has thus far been very impressive.

I Saw the Devil is one of the more extreme exercises in sadistic cinema, so much so that the Korean Media Rating’s Board deemed some aspects of the film unacceptable. Enforced cuts will only add to the mystique as this movie begins an inevitable journey into the land of the cult film. Min-sik Choi who is most familiar to western audiences for his lead performance in Oldboy (2003) plays Kyung-chul, easily one of the sickest and most depraved creations in modern cinema. He is a psychopathic serial killer whose motivation is pure pleasure. He is a disgustingly crude cesspool of a human being, but beneath his boorish exterior lies a keen intelligence. The film opens with Kyung-chul kidnapping a young pregnant woman and subjecting her to a torturous dismemberment. On this occasion however his choice of victim will come back to haunt him in the most incredible fashion. The girl’s fiancĂ©e Kim-soo Hyeon (Byung-hun Lee) happens to be a secret agent, and after whittling down the suspects (with his own brand of torture) he discovers that Kyung-chul is the architect of his misery. What follows can only be described has a road trip into hell, with both characters assuming the mantle of the films title. The film becomes a meditation on monstrousness, not a particularly sophisticated or subtle one as the countless scenes of violence testify too.

Kim-soo comes up with the excellent idea of bugging Kyung-chul, and after administering a savage beating, he allows him to live and continue on his way. Despite being virtually crippled the first thing that Kyung-chul does after receiving treatment is to batter the doctor and attempt to rape the nurse. But each time Kyung-chul is about to indulge in his base desires Kim-soo appears out of nowhere to save the victims and dish out yet more inventive cruelties. Set piece after brutal set piece follows until the inevitable moment in which the tables are turned. This is Kim’s take on the vigilante film, which he approaches via the route of torture porn. The revenge here is entirely personal, and ultimately endangers innocent parties. These are dangerous movies because they set up a world in which torture as an act of revenge is acceptable. Naturally the enforcers of law are largely inept and useless, a storytelling device which is often used in vigilante films to make the violent revenge even more justified. The problem with I Saw the Devil though is the decision to cast Min-sik Choi as the vile psychopath. Despite his unruly vulgarity he has a strange charisma, and the camera lovingly indulges his acting excesses to such a degree that he emerges as a much more engaging character than the bland secret agent.

The South Korean countryside becomes a truly nightmare space seemingly only populated by evil or damaged human beings. It is a landscape of cruelty and sadism, of harsh changes in weather, of disused and empty highways, in which cannibals and killers reside. The sense of evil is all pervasive and Kim-soo has no option but to become a part of this culture of insanity. The perverse narrative structure which is basically hunt/torture/release eventually loses power because of its sheer excessiveness. When Kyung-chul turns the tables on his tormentor it adds nothing to the film other than the opportunity to indulge in even more imaginative punishment. The result is a film that at 131 minutes is far too long. But it is the imaginative and terribly realistic nature of the violence that makes this a magnetic experience. In quieter moments the film is almost a complete failure, it only comes to life when somebody is being terrorised.


Karl Brezdin said...

Still need to check this one out, but this was an excellent review. Also wanted to let you dudes know that I shouted you guys out for a Liebster on this post: Please don't ask me what it is -- just know that it is awesome.

Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

Thanks for the comment Karl, and for the kind words. It's very much appreciated, and confirms this is a worthwhile endeavour. I think this is Kim's least interesting film to date, but still well worth a look. Thanks for the shout out.


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