I am developing a huge love of Korean cinema. Of course, when I say Korea, I mean South Korea (I doubt anything of value is coming out of North Korea). With me, it all started with the devastating film, Oldboy, which at the time, I counted as a one off and never really looked further into anything else coming out of that country. Then this year, I saw Mother and was again struck by the incredible story-telling skills that Korean directors were showing. So I’ve begun, and as of the writing of this review, am working on going through as many more Korean films as I can see (thanks Netflix Watch Instant!). I Saw the Devil was a film I was fixing to see at the AFI Festival but I was never able to — don’t even get me started on that. Fortunately, I was granted entrance to an advanced screening. I’d just finished watching A Tale of Two Sisters and The Good, The Bad, The Weird, both films, like I Saw the Devil, were directed by Kim Jee-Woon. So, I was rearing to catch another glimpse at the awesome directorial prowess that brought me those other two films. However, what I got was something more pedestrian, more unfocused and much more juvenile then what I’d seen before.
I Saw the Devil is a tale of murder and revenge. Oldboy‘s Choi Min-sik plays Kyung-chul, a psychopath who kills for fun. He has committed horrifying and cruel acts of violence on a great many women and has successfully eluded capture from the police. His latest victum, Ju-yeon (Oh San-ha in her debut role), is the daughter of a retired police chief and pregnant fiancée of elite special agent Dae-hoon (The Bad of The Good, The Bad and the Weird — Lee Byung-hyun). Obsessed with revenge, Dae-hoon decides to track down the monster, even if doing so means becoming a monster himself.
The key to any revenge film is to have a very clear, white hat vs. black hat, hero and villain and then to put the audience firmly in the shoes of the hero. Then if you decide to skew our hero off track, and show him making too many morally questionable decisions, that’s ok because the audience will follow him and feel empathy with him. Start with our hero up high so that we can look back and see from what heights he’s fallen. In this way you can turn up the heat so gradually that we don’t feel the pending doom before it’s too late, and in this way you can show us how the lines between hero and villain are not as clearly drawn as we’d like to think they are. I Saw the Devil gives us a clear villain; he is evil personified; however the hero is neither all too relatable nor all too good. He should be a bastion for truth and justice, if only to offset the complete depravity we get from Kyung-chul. Instead, he’s a fairly normal person with an astounding set of kung-fu skills and who honestly is halfway to the dark side before this film even begins.
My other problem with the arc of our hero is this nagging question. If someone gets hurt, tortured or killed by the antagonist during any film, of course we are going to throw heaps of hate upon the antagonist — and rightly so. It is his or her fault that grief was caused. If, however, the hero captures the villain and has the opportunity to end the villain’s rule of terror but instead lets the villain go and directly after being let go the villain causes someone pain, torture or death does not that blood falls squarely upon the shoulders of our hero and causes us to throw hate upon the person we are supposed to be rooting for?
Lastly, in Oldboy, again the first place where I, and I assume many other Westerners associate Choi Min-sik from, his character is kidnapped and after a time, he is given a wad of cash, bugged and let loose. In I Saw the Devil, Choi Min-sik’s character is captured, given a wad of cash, bugged and let loose. The similarities between both revenge flicks doesn’t end there and feel more “rip-off” then homage. Honestly, I would let most of it go except for one shot which pushed it all over the line for me. It’s the one shot that Oldboy is famous for where Choi Min-Sik’s character is holding a hammer above his head ready to rain down vengeful hell on someone. The exact same pose is captured in I Saw the Devil. It’s like having Bruce Willis say “Yippie Ki Yay” in the middle of Cop Out or having Robert De Niro quote his famous “You talking to me?” speech in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. You just don’t do it.
There is a scene near the middle of the film where Kyung-chul is hitchhiking and gets picked up by two guys in a taxi. As the taxi drives down the road a knife fight breaks out between the three men in the car. This fight is captured by a camera which whirls around and through the speeding car, brilliantly and violently choreographed. It is a moment of genius that brought me back to those other films of Kim Jee-Woon which I loved so much more than this. Those films didn’t have to go for the gag reflex of someone eating raw meat and then push it past that atrocity for no good reason. Those films didn’t need to make everyone a stereotype — every male a killer, every female a helpless, hopeless victim. Those were films where the violence meant something to the story and didn’t just feel like something the director was reveling in.