Saturday, June 18, 2011

I Saw The Devil directed by Kim Ji-Woon

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The novelist Milan Kundera once argued that the moral basis of the novel lies in its ability to explore the immoral. In other words, long-form fiction allows us the imaginative space to examine the consequences of evil without actually hurting anyone.

The same could be argued about movies. In particularly violent movies, we (both movie-makers and audience) get to play games of "What If?" without engaging in actual atrocities.

Beyond the basic argument behind free speech, this is how we can justify a movie like the Korean gorefest, I Saw The Devil. It's a movie that allows us to wallow in the mind-set of a monster without ever attacking anyone.

The plot of I Saw The Devil is a neat twist on the basic revenge drama we're all familiar with. When his fiancée falls prey to a serial killer, a government agent takes time off from work to track the killer down. But the twist comes once the agent finds the killer. Instead of exacting some eye-for-an-eye justice, the grief-stricken agent begins an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse with the killer, alternately capturing him and then letting him go.

Min-Sik Choi chews up the scenery in I Saw The Devil
All the while, director Jee-Woon Kim assembles his elements with amazing technical aplomb. The movie's pacing is taut, and the depicted violence runs the gamut from off-screen suggestion to in-your-face vividness. There are even notes of outré humor sprinkled throughout the relentless bloodletting (that is, if you can ever call the sight of a severed head funny, let alone a scene where a cannibal rummages through a fridge full of human limbs, muttering that all the organs have been taken.)

I Saw The Devil skirts the outer edges of realism, positing a world that is practically overrun with murderers who careen through the countryside with impunity, their greatest dangers being each other. (Well, I guess I could argue that this makes the movie all-too-realistic.) And this movie won't win any feminist champions. The women in I Saw The Devil only come in two flavors: helpless victims and half-baked accomplices.

Still, the performance of Min-Sik Choi (of Oldboy fame) is worth the price of admission. He plays his serial killer with a kind of coiled, frustrated impatience, as if the reason he's murdering people is that they had it coming all along. Such physical menace, coupled with his hangdog looks, makes Min-Sik Choi the perfect Everyman murderer, and it's no accident that the movie's conceit has all the moralistic dialog coming out of the bad guy's mouth. On his shoulders lie the movie's philosophical weight, as it were.

His dramatic rival, played by pretty boy Byung-Hun Lee, has less to work with, essentially becoming a mix of James Bond and Charles Bronson in his vengeful fury. Yet, as befits our current incarnations of the revenge drama, the final scene belongs to the good guy, even as his face betrays the cost (in both emotions & bodies) of revenge.

Given its high body count and relentless gore, I would recommend I Saw The Devil only to those who have the stomach for it. Personally, I enjoyed it. Draw whatever conclusions you want from this.

directed by Jee-Woon Kim

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