I Saw The Devil
Being screened at London’s ICA this weekend, although it’s about as far from a Royal Wedding movie as you can get, and out on Blu-ray and DVD on 9th May.
I Saw The Devil
(Kim Ji-woon, Kor, 2010)
Veering between alarming and exhilarating, anything meaningful is soon upstaged by its exploitation pic credentials until it is practically a (very) black comedy
Remember Monty Python and the Holy Grail? Specifically, remember the Black Knight? John Cleese’s hapless would-be psycho who keeps coming back for more even after his limbs have been hacked off? “It’s only a flesh wound,” he cries, literally hopping mad. Well, I Saw The Devil, for all its pretentions to being a sombre, shocking study of the futility of revenge, is pretty much that scene expanded to feature-length.
There’s no doubt that Kim Ji-woon has latched onto a durable premise, even in the oversaturated Korean revenge thriller genre. Oldboy’s Choi Min-sik settles into self-parody as a combustible psycho who rapes and decapitates women he snatches, but inadvertently picks the wrong victim – the fiancée of an intelligence officer (Byung-yun Lee, resembling a cold-hearted Justin Bieber). Given that catching the villain is too easy for an expert whose training and temperament are well suited to slow, stealthy payback, he initiates a cycle of catch and release to exponentially raise the pain and punishment. Gradually, he becomes a parody of a serial killer…with the vague get-out clause that (at least in theory) there’s only one victim. The easiest thing to do would be for Choi’s madman Kyung-chul to admit defeat and commit suicide, but like the Black Knight he takes a masochistic pleasure in the battle and determines to turn those tables even as he loses functionality in several limbs.
It’s such a great idea it could work equally well as genre flick (think 24 down torture-porn alley) or as a serious study of what happens when the hero becomes as monstrous as his prey. Trouble is, Kim wants it both ways. As a state-of-the-nation address, it’s delivered through a loudhailer: characters stop what they’re doing to get philosophical about Soo-hyun’s descent into brutality; it turns out that pretty much everybody we meet is either a killer or a victim; and Kim all but paints the subtext (that a government-sanctioned killer is little better than a lone-wolf psycho) onto the screen with blood.
Yet Kim’s filmmaker’s eye can’t rest there. His last film was the cartoonish ‘Spaghetti Eastern’ The Good, The Bad, The Weird, and the action sequences here are even more kinetic and frenetic. Our protagonists have barely met when they have an epic fight in a greenhouse, there’s an ultra-tense stand-off in a house occupied by the psycho and his mates and a quite astonishing set-piece in a taxi that deploys most delirious in-camera trickery since Children of Men. For a near two-and-a-half hour-long movie, the relentless energy and undoubted technical virtuosity keeps the plot’s repetition remarkably fresh.
Somewhere in the gap, though, the film stumbles in his attempts to shock, because the mix of earnestness and exploitation is actually very distasteful. Kim lingers on Choi’s salivating pleasure in stripping and abusing his victims, but there’s no psychology to be gleaned from the forensic wallowing in degradation and gore; Kyung-chul has even less backstory than Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers. He’s simply ‘the devil,’ an unstoppable force whose body is repeatedly battered but who springs back to life for another tussle. This isn’t realism, but comedy of the darkest hue – and the more time we have to dwell on Kyung-chul’s resemblance to a certain medieval madman, the more Byung-yun Lee’s loveless pout comes to resembles Graham Chapman’s exasperated King Arthur.
Tagged World Cinema