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Sundance '11 Review: 'I Saw The Devil' Is Ugly, Gratuitous, Sad, Brutal, Complex, And Terrific

by Christopher Bell
January 24, 2011 5:41 AM
13 Comments
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Revenge flicks are generally easy for audiences to get behind -- show a person devastatingly wronged and we're down to see him get some payback. The directors, just like us, don't necessarily take a deep look into the utter meaninglessness of violent retribution, that is aside from some thrown around lines like "It won't bring her back, Michael!" Instead, we're all more interested in the thrill. There's been a few pictures to examine its fruitlessness, (Jeff Nichols's "Shotgun Stories" comes to mind) but leave it to Ji-Woon Kim, the Korean director who somehow is responsible for one of the best Westerns in the last decade (TIFF 2008 hit, "The Good, the Bad, the Weird"), to really critique the genre and give it some depth with the hearty punch to the face titled "I Saw The Devil."

A cute, innocent woman sits in her broke-down car awaiting a tow truck. She's surrounded by snow and little else, so to kill time she engages in a phone call with her fiance. In typical thriller fashion, her boyfriend/our main character Soo-hyeon is a secret agent on some undisclosed mission, prepping in a hotel. We buy it because we have no choice. Moving on, the two chat lovingly for a bit before he has to go, but it's not soon after their call that she meets cab driver Kyung-Chul (Min-sik Choi, the star of "Oldboy" which, in turn, establishes another complex layer into this movie), who proceeds to kidnap, rape, torture, and kill her via guillotine. A search party is sent out and almost immediately they find her remains - at least some of them - in a small body of water. After a brief period of grieving, Soo-hyeon sets out to find the culprit, coming up with three men accused (but not convicted) of similar acts. At this point, a vague similarity to "Memories of Murder" kicks in, featuring a charging pace and a few humorous ways of scaring these scumbags straight. At the hour mark, the vengeful widower has already found Kyung-Chul, prevented him from another murder, and beat the shit out of him. Twenty minutes (ten if he were an American mumbly) and Kim could feasibly brew a satisfying ending, right?

Sure, if there wasn't an hour and a half still to go. The thought alone is exciting enough - usually, at least for the Korean new wave, this kind of mysterious filmmaker intention involves some experimental excursion or genre shift of some kind. Surprisingly, the director takes an even stranger route: repeated acts of savage cat and mouse. Kyung-Chul awakens, spared, with a wad of money on his chest. He escapes his lair-esque warehouse and proceeds to get a cab to the city, only something seems a bit off. The man quickly deducts that both the cab driver and other passenger aren't who they seem - and they mean him harm. He goes on to stab them repeatedly (a guesstimation leads to about 20 a piece) as the director cuts from the inside of the car to the outside, capturing it recklessly speeding down the highway. He goes back and forth between these two angles frantically, creating an abnormal and tense scene, mesmerized by this seemingly monotonous rhythm. When the car finally comes to a stop, it's discovered that Soo-hyeon has been following this entire incident thanks to a well-planted tracking device in Kyung's body. Using his new found toy, he sets off to repeat the process of finding him, kicking his ass, freeing him, and so on.

It's definitely an off narrative path to go on, but in doing so it sets itself apart from the pack and elevates itself to an entirely new plateau. What could've been a simple, expertly crafted genre piece is instead a no-holds-barred criticism of thrillers, complete with thought provoking questions and conversation starters. Kim doesn't shy away from the brutality of their actions, and while it's certainly exhilarating and well directed, the constant use of violent beat down scenes end up becoming something more than just an exciting thing to watch - the repetition removes the joy and leaves only the reality. In the end, it's not just the "villain" who is sick and disturbed, it's the "hero," too - and both are in quotes because neither are villain or hero, just insane. For whatever reason, most thrillers tend to avoid these human complexities, instead painting a picture in black and white with one bad guy and one good guy, with the good one's questionable acts excused because someone killed or kidnapped a loved one. That somehow makes his very gruesome acts justifiable? Here, Soo-hyeon does have those reasons, but they're not used to invoke sympathetic audience reaction. They're merely just his starting point (and really, what audience member will latch on to someone who digs into another's ankle with a knife?), and anything he does to Kyung isn't displayed gallantly. Instead, it's shown in all of its ugliness.

There's plenty more to be pulled from this (is its repeated form a commentary on the staleness of the genre itself? What of its portrayal of its lust for retribution akin to a drug addiction? etc.) but even those uninterested in what it has to say will find much to enjoy. Action scenes are extremely well choreographed (and they better be - Kim's new film stars Liam Neeson and he doesn't bullshit) and the film speeds along like no other. Like most of his peers, the director also doesn't shy away from humor, and here he takes the piss out of his own scenes. One of the most notable is toward the very end, when the police start to catch on to the game. Kyung stands in the middle of a highway and directly across from him is Soo-hyeon in an SUV. Surrounded by police but still thirsty for blood, what's a man to do? He reverses, takes off the passenger door, races towards his enemy, grabs and throws him into the adjacent seat as they drive to their final destination. It's completely grotesque and absolutely silly, but goddamn is it intense. The filmmaker proves that you can poke fun, critique, and still provide some great action all in one scene.

After briefly reading some other reactions to the film, "I Saw The Devil" is likely to have an unfortunate number of misreadings and it will also probably be held to conventional movie expectations (naive shoutings like "It needs this! It doesn't have this!") instead of being looked at for its own intents and purposes. We're not really sure how someone could possibly view this as a stock thriller with scenes like the aforementioned cab-stabbing and inclusion of goofiness, but we digress. There's also a chance that some audiences won't even be able to enjoy the action, regardless of how accomplished it is, because of its reluctance to sugarcoat anything and insistence in being so cruel and remorseless. It's not "Funny Games," but its depiction of violence may not be stomach-able for most. It's a shame, too, because those willing to give themselves to the movie are going to be very, very pleased. [A]

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13 Comments

  • Andrew | June 30, 2011 2:14 AMReply

    The criticisms of Park's employment of Greek tragic structure posted here might be the most pedantic nitpicks of his work that I've read on the web, but I'm mostly puzzled at allegations that he uses said structure pointlessly that are simultaneously followed by acknowledgment of what he actually does with it. "Man being undone by his dominant trait"/"man leading himself to his own ruin" constitutes the prime thematic meat of the film; Park's not winking at us slyly as he slips these elements in underhandedly because he's been building on those ideas for the entire picture as his focal point. And I never understand what point a person thinks he or she is making by connecting a love of a particular film or a particular director with teen-hood and immaturity, either; I also wonder if these people were ever 17. Films like Oldboy, which eschew the pop-culture ideal that good punishes evil and denies the hero a satisfying revenge, don't appeal to most teens. If anyone disagrees, I'd suggest talking to a few or being honest with yourself about what you were like as a teenager.

    I do agree that labeling any of these films as "bad" is a big mistake-- a film like, say, I'm A Cyborg, But That's Okay is "interesting" even if it doesn't live up to what Park is capable of (assuming you think he's actually a filmmaker and not a smirking faux-intellectual who read Oedipus that one time). Of course, I'm operating under the impression that that statement is meant as an umbrella beneath which even the bizarrely maligned Park's oeuvre deserves a spot, but the Internet has a history of being disappointing in the blissfully unobserved hypocrisy of its writers. "You can't call any of these films bad, except for that guy's" sounds really disingenuous.

    As to the actual film being reviewed, it really is great, and I definitely agree with the comments on the film's pacing. It's a film of respectable length but you never feel the time go by because it's so damn mercurial; Kim doesn't waste time in any sense, and he gets to the point with speed (but not with haste, which to me is a different thing entirely) and keeps pushing the film further and further while never introducing any real fat to plot or narrative. There's something to be said for how watchable and beautiful he makes his hideous and brutal and blunt displays of human ugliness, too, but I think the greatest joy comes in watching Min-sik Choi square of with Byung-hun Lee. Choi's a powerhouse, and has been since the late 90's (which is as far back as I can go in terms of my experience with his acting), and here he brings to the table a lot of the energy that made Dae-su such a memorable character while wielding that energy in a totally different way; Lee does his soulless, intense, focused man on a mission thing well without making him emotionless, as he did with A Bittersweet Life, and when the two of them clash it's electric. There's a lot worth recommending this film for-- its photography, its use of score, its complex perspective on vengeance-- but the two central performances might have been the highlight for me.

  • Christopher Bell | February 18, 2011 9:26 AMReply

    These films aren't attempting realism though. You have to accept them as they are, took look at them not through any preconceived notions as what films should be or should do. Their different perspectives on material (I wouldn't say silly, I would say weird, fun, different...) is all for a reason (or reasons) and I think it's a huge disservice to simply label it as "bad." There's more at work here, there are intentions.

    I don't think we're going to be in agreeance, though it seems the exact way you see "Oldboy" I see "I Saw The Devil."

  • winston smith | January 29, 2011 12:56 AMReply

    I personally thought I Saw the Devil was ruined by a completely implausible and/or under-developed plot.

    *SPOILERS*

    The first 45 minutes are great. But the whole catch and release thing... what was his goal? How would this be a worse torture? Now I'm not saying I wanted him to just tie him and torture him Hostel style. But the way this idea is used, like, in a perfect goal, what was his hope? How would this turn out? Didn't he a) know the tracking device would only be in for a very limited time and b) he's taking a chance that others will get hurt. Hell the first thing the serial killer does after getting out is kill 2 cabbies. Yeah, it ends up they were actually killers themselves (what a nice coincidence) but there's no way the main character could have known that.

    I just didn't understand the point. It wanted to go Oldboy where somehow there are worse things than just death/torture, but it never did a good job of telling us that. What was his master plan? Some say, see, this shows how revenge only leads to bad things. But we never see a progression. It's at the end of the 1st act that he does this stupid catch and release thing. So yeah, by the end when he puts the serial killers family (who had only helped him) through the butchery of their admittedly evil son/father, it's like, okay, he's gone too far. But he's been going too far for most of the movie.

    Again, it just doesn't make sense. In real life, you'd never even remotely see this. It's a parody of itself. You never understand why the main character is putting so much at risk for something that never seems like a punishment for the serial killer (only time he gets "punished" is when he's tortured by the main character, which then is like, why even go through with this?) Just ruined the film for me, and if an American film came out with this exact same script people would laugh it out of theatres. But oh it's Korean so it's great.

    I also think Bong is a very overrated filmmaker. The Host, again, great first 45 minutes, but then it slowly begins to make less and less sense. It's also got one of the weirdest death scenes I've ever seen, at the end of the film, and again is full of plot holes.

    Oldboy, however, along with JSA, Thirst and Mr. Vengeance, is a masterpiece. Sorry, Chan-wook Park is as good if not better than people say. Oldboy was probably the greatest film I've seen this last decade. It's a powerhouse of a film, where everything makes sense at the end. The motivations, the "why release him," all of it. It's not some shallow Greek tragedy-lite revenge film. Not even close. I almost find it hard to understand how anyone could like "I Saw the Devil" or "The Host" and then say Oldboy is overrated and shallow. Boggles the mind.

    Some props to Mother, though, I did like that Bong film.

  • Michael | January 26, 2011 5:42 AMReply

    Park has an impressive background in literature and philosophy, but he deploys it to no real end. As you mentioned, Christopher, Oldboy may be structured as a Greek tragedy, but it does little with that concept. For those of us who have also studied Greek tragedy (and there are many; Park isn't exactly the authoritative scholar in that field), Park barely engages the structure of tragedy beyond "man is undone by his dominant trait." That reference just adds a bit of pseudo-intellectualism for the 17-year-old males of the Internet to gawk over without actually bothering to dig into what Park is trying to say (nothing).

    Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is probably the best film Park will make. Before it he was still getting a feel for entertaining, and after it he has become too pleased namechecking concepts and works of art beyond his comprehension. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance represents a fairly well-maintained balance of pulp and intelligence, and even then it doesn't quite reach the higher points of a Bong film. Granted I have not yet seen Thirst. I hear it's a bit better than the latter two films in Park's revenge trilogy, but I've essentially given up on Park by now.

    Kim has a fan following, I will admit, but I think by now most people have gotten tired of his loathesome sexual politics and repeat tricks. His past as a painter gives him the same one talent as Park: image-making. Beyond that, he's even more brainless than Park, who at least makes an effort to strain for higher ground during his exploitation nonsense. Few directors bother me in such a way as Kim does, and I attribute this mostly to his never-ending contention that a woman is not truly free until she accepts sex (usually prostitution) and violence (usually meaningless) as ways of living. Some fans would argue he's trying to make a point about people who think that way, but I'm more inclined to think he's filming his specifically male fantasies of how he wishes women worked.

    Bong, in contrast, treats all of his characters fairly (even the retarded ones) and is a remarkably accomplished storyteller. Park's sprawling narratives and Kim's meandering ones are mere shadows of Bong's efficient ones, and Bong manages to inject plenty of moral ambiguity and nuance into his genre exercises. Thus they work very well as both entertainment and art, a skill few directors have. Now if Kim Ji-Woon can pull off a similar balance of genre revisionism and moral exploration (and your review indicates that he certainly can), I feel he'll rank right up there with Bong as a favored contemporary director for me.

  • Jon B | January 25, 2011 5:02 AMReply

    @john I've seen the film, and the reviewer definitely did not spoil the ending. Still absolutely worth seeing, as there is lots more to the story than what was shared - especially at the end. Fantastic movie.

  • M | January 25, 2011 3:20 AMReply

    Interesting. I like the Korean film makers. Loved Old boy by Park and Bong Joon Ho is an awesome young director.

    Will check this out if it comes out

  • john | January 25, 2011 1:34 AMReply

    Writing the review doesn't mean that you have to explain the whole plot including ending to the readers. Whats the point of seeing the movie now when all the plot twists are revealed? At least use the "spoilers ahead" in the beginning...

  • Stephen M | January 24, 2011 9:14 AMReply

    I hope this gets a release and some support from critics. I haven't seen it, but the other two reviews I've seen in the last couple months both named it the best film of last year, despite it not really opening yet. Very excited.

  • Kathleen Walsh | January 24, 2011 7:38 AMReply

    I agree with Michael on Park Chan Wook, for the most part. While I'm watching his films, I feel like they could be my favorite movies ever until whatever third act total veer-off into CRAZY WORLD happens, then he's just lost me as a viewer. Bong Joon Ho is probably my favorite young filmmaker working today. I just find the Korean cinematic exploration of "revenge" to be fascinating as a collective cultural obsession though. This one sounds good, thanks for the review, CB!

  • Christopher Bell | January 24, 2011 6:58 AMReply

    I pretty much hate Park aside from "Thirst" and "Sympathy..." and even then I think they still have problems. This is vastly different from his stylings, even though it could be related to "Oldboy," which I thought was very questionable and pointless. It's a greek tragedy! So what? Feels empty to me, but that's just me and I'm always willing to look at something in a different way.

    Not sure if "we all can agree" that Kim Ki-Duk is awful, I think people generally seem to like a lot of his work. But again, with you on that one.

  • Michael | January 24, 2011 6:38 AMReply

    As someone not entirely down with Park Chan-Wook's style of 'rub your face in it until you feel the filth' retribution morality tale, I think this may be more suited to my tastes. I have not seen The Good, The Bad, and The Weird, but I've heard good things about it and am looking forward to it.

    I'm very split on Korean cinema. I find Park Chan-Wook to be a decent imagemaker, but a messy storyteller and morally suspect human being. Kim Ki-Duk is just awful, as I think we can all agree. But people like Bong Joon-Ho more than justify the typical genre-bending South Korean film tradition, and then there's others like Hong Sang-Soo and Lee Chang-Dong trying for something else entirely. It's a scattershot bounty, but I guess that's pretty fitting of the 'South Korean New Wave' anyhow.

  • Christopher Bell | January 24, 2011 6:28 AMReply

    Opens March 4th :) Probably NY/LA only though.

  • Klesla | January 24, 2011 5:48 AMReply

    Yes, but how is it being distributed?!?!!

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