31st August 2010
A few weeks ago, I had received a call from a friend of mine-a former student who boarded in my house for about two years. He had watched both A Man From Nowhere and I Saw the Devil in theaters and asked me if I had seen them. While we were talking, he said that he preferred A Man From Nowhere because of Won Bin’s acting. “But,” he added, “I Saw the Devil is your style. You have to see it.” My style? I had of course been following the news and rumors surrounding the near non-realease of the film. Censors had deemed it too offensive and violent and nearly gave it a rating that would have prevented the film’s screening within Korea. I wondered if I would like it. I remember writing in the spring of 2009 that I had walked out of the film Missing. I found it too cruel and annoying at the same time. The director of Missing had stated that he wanted to make a movie like Saw and I say he succeeded. I have never watched more than 10 minutes of any Saw film. How could I Saw the Devil be ‘my style’? I like films that make you think, not blood baths! Well, I watched it last night and I have to say that my friend seems to know me pretty well. I Saw the Devil is definitely my style.
I Saw the Devil is very different from Missing and Saw that I mentioned above. In those films, the torture of innocent people seems to comprise the entire reason for making the film. That is not the case here. The villain Kyeong-cheol is undeniably brutal.. however, torture is not his main motif. Judging from the amount of blood in some scenes, torture undoubtedly occurs, especially later in the film when he is seeking revenge on Soo-hyeon, but much of it happens off screen. Soo-hyeon engages in quite a bit of brutality himself and his methods are extremely questionable. But his dealings with Kyeong-cheol–who ranks up there as one of the most despicable cinematic characters that I have ever encountered–are oddly carthartic. Too often in movies and tv (Dexter anyone?), the killer is glorified. It was a welcomed change to see a killer get his comeuppance. Of course, if Soo-hyeon had just called the police when he found the killer instead of engaging in his own path of revenge, it would have been better for everyone and saved a half dozen lives or so-and the killer still would have been punished.
Soo-hyeon is given a very clear opportunity to break from the path of vengeance, but he willfully and conciously decides against it well aware that his actions may turn him into a monster. His promise to his murdered wife is binding and to break from that would be like betraying her and failing his duty to punish her killer. For his part, Kyeong-cheol sees Soo-hyeon’s dedication to punishing him as a kind of game, an extra challenge that he becomes determined to overcome even though the cards seemed stacked against him. Once he figures out the rules and realizes the identity of his pursuer, Kyeong-cheol is able to take control of the game and is free to seek his own path of revenge for all the pain Soo-hyeon has bought him and his assoiciates.
I really did not see anything in this movie that would warrent such an outcry by the censor board. I had heard that there were concerns about a scene where a dog is fed a hand, however that did not appear in the theatrical version I saw. The amount of gore is no more than what we saw in Chaser or Black House a few years ago and the body count is less than in Bittersweet Life. If it was a problem with the protaganist acts in a morally questionable manner, then I would direct critics to Sympathy For Lady Vengeance. Actually, I found myself thinking that I Saw the Devil was the movie that Sympathy For Lady Vengeance should have been and Kim Ji-woon’s directing felt more like a style Park Chan-wook would use.
In brief, I was very pleased with this movie–even with the scenes I watched with one eye closed. There can be no complaint about the acting of the two leads. Lee Byeong-heon and Choi Min-shik are arguably the best actors in the Korean film industry at the moment. And it is a film that makes you think as Soo-heon’s choice become harder to justify even as we understand his reasons. It really was my style.