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]