Monday, 14 November 2011
I Saw the Devil
Starring Byung-hun Lee, Min-sik Choi, Gook-hwan Jeon
By Alan Bacchus
Call me a masochist, but I want the movies I watch to beat me senseless. Enjoyment of film comes from the ability of the filmmaker to manipulative one's emotions, be it through laughter, sadness or fear. I haven’t been pummelled this hard in a while. And damn does it feel good. Jee-woon Kim’s audacious I Saw the Devil is a thriller/action/horror film for the ages.
This is a two-and-a-half hour relentless car wreck of a film, so grisly and disturbing, but something you can’t help but rubberneck your head around to watch.
Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun) is a cop whose wife was murdered in a particularly brutal fashion. Her body was pummelled to unconsciousness in her car, then brought back to the killer’s layer, then brutally chopped up with a meat clever, then deposited in the river. There’s no question in Soo-hyun’s mind that he will make it his life’s goal to exact proper revenge for this crime.
This is also Korean cinema – which arguably redefined the revenge film genre with the Chan Wook-Park films in the 2000s – and director Kim plays into our expectations by ramping up the energy early on for some ass-kicking vengeance.
Soo-hyum systematically goes through the four likely suspects, beating confessions out of each of them. And surprisingly he meets the real killer, Kyung-chul (Old Boy’s Choi Min-sik), with relative ease and less than half an hour into the film. After beating him to near death, he stops and lets him go. Why? This is just the first act of Soo-hyun’s and director Kim’s grandiose plan of vengeance. An eye for an eye is just the tip of this iceberg.
The film then becomes an intense battle between serial killer and cop with Soo-hyum following Kyung-chul, who is still compelled to continue his exercise, including his need for rape, murder and torture. Each time the killer finds a new victim, Soo-hyum is there to save the day and administer more beat downs. Kyung-chul proves to be a wily opponent and one not to be messed with, and the tables are turned magnificently.
The lesson in this film is not subtle, as violence begets violence, a contagion that spreads from the guilty to the innocent, blurring all lines of good, evil and human decency. By the end, both opponents become sadists to the extreme, a quid pro quo of blood curdling torture taken to the extreme.
Kim leaves nothing off screen to infer. He boldly shows Achilles tendons being ripped apart, as well as fleshy stabbings through the hands, cheek and neck. We quickly become desensitized to maimed body parts as each scene becomes more gruesome than the next. The scene to end all scenes occurs midway through a suspenseful and near-insane knife fight in a taxi cab. This is a scene to be seen before it can be believed.
Kim’s filmmaking skills are of the highest order, elevating the picture above mere torture porn. His pacing and ability to create a visceral impact to not just the gore, but also the intense urgency at play for both characters is remarkable, resulting in a picture that is more impactful than anything I’ve seen on screen this year.