Exclusive: Last week we ran a bit of news concerning Kim Ji-woon’s gestating Hollywood debut “The Last Stand” with new-fangled/old-bodied action star Liam Neeson, also spilling the beans on an early personal project the filmmaker is working on himself. Here’s the rest of our interview, in which the director discusses his chilling thriller “I Saw the Devil.” We reviewed the film during Sundance and it’s an early best of the year, an unforgettable account of human nature at its ugliest. In our conversation, Kim speaks of the emotional core he was interested in, plus the different layers to the title and his affection for David Fincher’s “Zodiac.”
The Playlist: Revenge flicks can generally be very manipulative, simplistic, cut-and-dry movies, but you brought a few interesting things to the table.
Kim Ji-woon:I guess I was trying to take the typical ideas in a different/new direction. There were enough differences in the script that I was interested in, such as meeting the killer in the middle of the film instead of coming to a two hour chase and catching the killer at the end. Another novel idea I thought was to have that serial killer start a counter attack.
What were your goals with this one? How did you see it?
The basis of this film really starts from asking this question, what would I have done if I was in the same position as the cop character? Because it starts from such an emotional question, if I had been wronged that day, how would I respond? Because it starts from this emotion based origin point, the film takes on a very emotional core, where we see the struggles and dilemmas that the main characters going through from an emotional standpoint and that’s one of the things I was trying to center here.
So an important part, for you, were the things that surrounded the revenge. What caused it and so forth.
I think this film is also about the pain. This is about one man’s pain, and returning that in an exact way or maybe more powerfully to the cause of that pain. The audience also goes on a similar path, they identify with Soo-hyeon, that wish to see that revenge through by the course of the film. I think what really shocked audience members is not simply actions and the emotions of the violence that they see, but to see the deep down emotions that drove those actions, and to realize that the horrific degree of what is possible as a person.
Soo-hyeon is the protagonist, but he can be much worse in the way he treats the antagonist. How do you see his overall path?
I would say it’s like being drawn or pull down into a swamp or rabbit hole that you can’t get yourself out of. As the violence heightens we see Soo-hyeon become much more like the devil character, we see how he’s becoming more and more evil in a way. In searching for a thematic core for this film, I came upon a passage from Nietzche‘s“Beyond Good and Evil,” and I’m paraphrasing here, one who is hunting the monster must be careful not to become the monster himself.
By placing “I” in the title of the film, it almost becomes first person. Was this intentional?
The title of the film can be taken in a few different ways, there’s the obvious serial killer and the devil we see in him. The second devil we see is in Soo-hyeon where he has to become the devil to destroy the devil himself. And the third devil I’m hoping audiences will see is the devil inside one’s own self, as an audience member we see the vengeance carried out and there’s a small corner of ourselves that want this vengeance to be completed, that there’s a moment that we want it and we sympathize and somewhat identify with his actions, there’s a devil we recognize within ourselves as we watch through a surrogate.
Some audiences are having very negative reactions to this movie, with a few even likening it to torture porn films such as “Saw” or “Hostel.”
This film was one of the most strongly divided, some said it was my best of my career, some said it was the worst. I think this attests to the fact that the film, the mood and the subject matter and the execution is that more pointed and stronger than my previous ones. If you look at just the extreme violence and only focus on those tendencies in the film, it could compare to something like “Saw” or torture porns, but I hope that the audiences see the emotional core that’s at the bases of these actions that have driven the central characters to such extremities. They’re acting out on emotions that are at the core of every person. Because I was trying to explore the extremities of what is possible in human kind, I think it can also be looked at as a psychological thriller in examining that mindset. I’m hoping that audiences can see both those aspects rather than just focus on one thing or the other.
You’re usually very vocal about films that have inspired your work. “A Bittersweet Life” was influenced by a number of French noirs, and “The Good, The Bad, The Weird” is, well, not shy in its title in reference to influence. What about this film?
There’s not any specific film that I tried to take a look at for this movie, but in a broad sense I was interested in crime thrillers, because I think that they, especially when they’re about a specific point in time, they can function as a window into dark desires of that period. I really wanted to reflect upon the desires and passions that are driving our base levels today. Maybe David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” as that had a very toned down contrast and hues, whereas my past films were very vibrant. For this film I kind of emulated “Zodiac” in that way and it made it look a little more realistic, so now instead of just a flat black, the darks in the film became grey or hazy, a creepy kind of black. It gave it a different kind of mood.
Your next two films — “The Last Stand” and a remake of “Max and the Junkmen” — are both set for America, with scripts you did not write. Do you have any reservations about working in a completely different country under a completely different system?
Of course I could be comfortably making films in Korea where I’d have much more control and say, but it’s an interesting exercise in keeping my mind fresh and challenging myself instead of staying comfortable. As long as I’m able to approach these kind of things as new challenges, I think I’ll be able to get through it well. I definitely have some fears but I’m optimistic on what the possibilities can bring working in a new system like this.