Tuesday, May 29, 2012

K-Movie Review: I Saw The Devil

Whoa, it's been a long time since I've touched on movies here! Unfortunate, because I set the goal a few years ago to watch one foreign movie a month. As is the case with such life-improving plans, I have really fallen short on that one. The previously-posted Korean Film Archive should help me round that one out.

A while ago I acquired* I Saw The Devil, which is a refreshingly literal translation of 악마를 보았다. Kim Ji-woon directing? Choi Min-sik starring? High expectations, everybody! The big to-do about this one is that Choi Min-sik came out of self-imposed exile to star in it. To him, it had promise.

It clocks in at two hours and twenty minutes, so it's a bit of a haul. It starts off pretty strong: Choi Min-sik as the violent rapist/murderer/psychopath Kyung-chul and Lee Byung-hun as Soo-hyun, the brooding protagonist cop out to avenge the death of his girlfriend. Bring on the popcorn.

The first hour is awesome. Soo-hyun is a cold angel of vengeance, hunting down suspects and beating the hell out of them in awesome and creative ways. The first two are nameless, useless schmucks, but when he comes across Kyung-chul there's a bit of a backstory. Soo-hyun talks to Kyung-chul's parents, posing as some kind of insurance claims investigator. "He looks so scary," Kyung-chul's mother says after Soo-hyun shows her a mugshot. Her husband dismisses Kyung-chul as a selfish piece of garbage who would never spend money on an insurance policy.

Living with Kyung-chul's parents is Kyung-chul's inexplicable son. Who the mother is (or was) never comes up, or why Kyung-chul abandoned him in the first place. Even the question of how "abandoned" the boy is is suspect, because he is able to direct Soo-hyun to Kyung-chul's house.

Kyung-chul isn't at home; Soo-hyun investigates and finds his girlfriend's engagement ring. Shit's about to get real.

Meanwhile, Kyung-chul has abducted one of the students he shuttles in a hagwon bus. He is about to get to the business of sexually assaulting her when Soo-hyun shows up.

But what's this? There's an hour left in the film, but the hero and the villain are already facing off! How was Kim Ji-woon going to handle the next hour?  What was going to happen?

Soo-hyun and Kyung-chul struggle. Soo-hyun eventually incapacitates Kyung-chul, strangling him near to death. While Kyung-chul's passed out, Soo-hyun breaks his wrist and forces a GPS signaling device/microphone down his throat. He also leaves Kyung-chul an envelope full of money.

At this point, Soo-hyun's intentions are clear: he doesn't just want to avenge the death of his (pregnant?) girlfriend, he wants to make the bastard suffer. With this revelation, the movie shifts from a "catch the bad guy before it's too late" style cop thriller to a weird psychological profile of Soo-hyun and Kyung-chul, and that's where I got bored.

Here's what I think was the intention: a morality play about the necessary limits of revenge. Here's what I watched: an excuse for sadistic violence with the occasional titillation. I stopped watching after Soo-hyun sliced out Kyung-chul's Achilles tendon. I read the plot synopsis on Wikipedia to find out the end because I didn't feel like enduring another fifty minutes of there-for-the-sake-of-it sadism. You can read it there if you want to know; I'd prefer to keep this review relatively spoiler-free.

Despite what it may seem, I'm not too terribly squeamish a person. The Boy is a horror movie buff and as a result I've seen (and enjoyed) more than my fair share of really extreme, gory stuff.  I have no inherent objection to violence in movies, but when it seems to serve no other purpose than to just be there, it leaves me cold.

Contrast the above to Oldboy, another revenge-themed movie starring Choi Min-sik. There are scenes in Oldboy that are just as gory and awful as in I Saw The Devil, and yet nothing in Oldboy stirred  the same vague distaste as did the Achilles tendon scene did in I Saw The Devil. Granted, it's been a few years since I last re-watched Oldboy, but the lingering memory is that despite some awful brutality, the violence necessary. It's there to bolster up the pathos of the story. In I Saw The Devil, the story is merely a vehicle for violence: the more sadistic, the better.

I Saw The Devil was screened at an assortment of international film festivals, including Sundance, and racked up a whole assortment of awards: best editing, best director, best film. "Did these people see the same movie I did?" I asked myself.

 Movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes has some interesting statistics: while user reviews pegged it as 85% fresh (that is, good), the top critics rated it only as 55% (enough to qualify as "rotten"). Apparently you have to be erudite and bookish old white guy to dislike it, or something. Well, at least I'm in good company!

If you're a die-hard K-movie/revenge-porn style horror fan, it's great. Otherwise, your time is best spent elsewhere.

*downloaded via BitTorrent


  1. He also directed The Good, The Bad, and The Wierd, which is a great spaghetti Western that replaces cowboys and Indians with Japanese invades and Chinese nationalists.

    1. That's not only one of my favorite K-movies of all time, but perhaps one of my favorite movies in any language of all time. The chase scene at the end is pure awesome. Sometimes I compulsively watch it on YouTube.