“Revenge is for movies.”
Right about the time serial killer Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi, best known as Oh Dae-su in Oldboy) hobbled out of a big black tunnel in the side of a mountain, I realized what I was really watching: the roadrunner was kicking the shit out of that fucking coyote, and it was glorious. Meep meep indeed.
Today’s Killtoberfest 3 movie and the final in my Asian sounder is I Saw the Devil, a Korean thriller by director Kim Jee-woon. I saw his The Good, The Bad & The Weird not too long ago, and between the two I think it’s safe to conclude that he’s got a sick sense of humor, a deep fondness for genre filmmaking, and a well-earned confidence in his storytelling skills. I Saw the Devil is gorgeous, assured, and just plain entertaining. In my experience, Korean cinema has long since picked up the slack Hollywood has left in terms of moderately-budgeted genre films. They’re typically both stylish and rigorous in their details and story logic, morally gray, well-paced, compelling, and pleasingly violent. I don’t know what it is in the water over there that grows twisted plots infused with BDSM, vengeance, and torture, but can America have some, please? Tarantino moved on to Westerns and Michael Mann hasn’t been the same since he killed those horses, so America’s definition of a crime movie these days is Will Smith seducing a white woman. I’d love to roll into a Midwestern multiplex and see the hero of the picture casually attempting to rip someone’s jaw off with his bare hands. I’ll bet that’d play in Peoria.
I think I Saw the Devil would, too, if it were in English. Americans love us some revenge stories, especially if we get to feel morally righteous twice–first when the hero goes after the sneering psychopath and then again when we skim through the lesson about revenge being a hollow act and those who fight monsters should take care that they blah blah blah yeah, we get it, more blood please. In the real world, the story of a secret agent (1) indulging his bloodlust by exacting a drawn-out, toying vengeance with the serial killer who murdered the agent’s fiancee would be both unbelievable and morally repugnant. But in a movie I feel 100% okay with rooting for the heroic but twisted fucker to fuck with the serial asshole/rapist all the way down the line.
And what a line! We like to call any sort of extended, violent, tactical conflict between antagonist and protagonist a “cat and mouse” game, but I Saw the Devil is a true cat and mouse game, because cats like to play with their mice before killing them. Although it takes a while for the movie to really kick into overdrive–which is another way of saying that the film patiently establishes realistic emotional stakes for the revenge before vaulting over the top of the top in seeking it–once it gets there all bets are essentially off. The most important moment in the film comes about 45 minutes in, when bereaved agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee, who was “The Bad” in TGTB&TW and is only slightly less handsome here) confronts Kyung-chul, defeats him easily in hand-to-hand combat (even though the killer is armed with multiple knives and Soo-hyeon is only armed with how crazy badass he is), and then… lets him go. Shortly thereafter we learn that Soo-hyeon forced the unconscious Kyung-chul to swallow a GPS tracker so that he could find him again for a repeat performance. The rest of the movie is focused on evaluating the merits and consequences and reasons for that decision. Is Soo-hyeon a monster, as one character suggests? If not, will this experience accustom him to the thrill of the hunt? In the end, is this extended, torturous vengeance worth it, either for Soo-hyeon or anyone else? Yes and no, I think.
I Saw the Devil is a fascinating film, a textbook study in how to stage sequences of tension, action, and murder for maximum clarity and effect. The cinematography is clear and concise, never using multiple shots where one assured pan or crane will do, saving its wide shots for just the right moment, using repeated compositions to align viewer memories, and sticking meticulously to a very traditional use of low and high angles and horizontal screen ratios to indicate which characters are taking, holding, using, or giving up power at any given time. We almost always know exactly what’s happening and why, thanks to skillful lighting, efficient editing, and committed performances. The last especially make the film stand out; no stranger to iconicism, Jee-woon Kim knows to develop character through action, not dialogue, and precisely when to break that rule in order to do a little mythmaking, as when the detectives on the case blanche at evidence of Soo-hyeon’s brutality, or when a friend of Kyung-chul’s chortles that the killer will always find a way to get even. Both Lee and Choi are well up for this extended battle of wills between two twisted men, one driven by cold grief, the other by a darkly amusing, seemingly endless capacity for both taking and inflicting punishment.
In the end, I Saw the Devil isn’t trying to make any grand statements or spin any complex metaphors, and it’s all the stronger for it. The movie is just pure entertainment, a gory crowd-pleaser with just the right mix of sincere drama and exciting action to get the blood pumping without needing to disengage the brain first. It falls short of greatness by dint of ambition, not quality, and is therefore well worth your time. “Revenge is for movies,” says one of the characters, and that’s true; but it’s also true that the movies are often for revenge. You’ve done it again, Korea. I can’t wait to see what you crazy kids come up with next.
1 The movie’s only real flaw is that it lacks a classic “Just How Badass Is He?” scene, where one person explains to another the protagonist’s resume, skills, training, and ninja/ghost quotient. I always enjoy those scenes.
Killtoberfest 3 continues! Click here for more horror (but not horrible) reviews, including Killtoberfests 1 and 2.