Korean director Kim Jee-woon is the real deal. He’s a smart visually canny director with a sharp sense of humor who adeptly plays with genres, from his sixth film, the wacky Oriental western hit The Good, The Bad, and the Weird to the serial killer thriller I Saw the Devil, which also features Good Bad Weird star Lee Byung-hun.
This time, Lee plays a homicide detective on the hunt for an insane serial killer who wacked his pregnant wife in an opening sequence that will haunt me for life. This movie is not for the squeamish–Kim takes the violence about as far as anyone ever has–but he’s working out ideas; this vengeance plot, with all its gore and evil, is in the service of art. After seeing the film in Toronto, I interviewed Kim and Lee at their first Sundance Film Festival, where the film played well. It opens Friday. The interview and a round-up of early reviews are below:
AT: Last year there was a movie here from Michael Winterbottom, The Killer Inside Me, that ignited a real firestorm of controversy because it was so violent. And I wondered, in Utah, was there any reaction? Because this movie is still going to ignite a little bit of response. Have you shown it in Korea yet? How big a hit was it in Korea?
Lee: We both went [to the Sundance screening], we both said hello, but he went out and I watched it. The reaction was really good.
Kim: The film was restricted two times for what was deemed violent content and somehow the film itself became a kind of monster to the Korean cinema, for some reason because of that. It was the first time a film was restricted like that twice.
AT: It means that certain people of a certain age cannot attend? What’s the cutoff there?
Kim: It has to be shown at only a restricted number of theaters that are allowed to screen restricted material. It can only show in specific theaters, not a general wide release, you have to go to a specific theater to watch the film, and it happened twice. But the problem is is that there is pretty much no theater that you can screen a film that’s been restricted like this because there’s so few of these theaters.
AT: So there are lines around the block to see it?
Kim: So basically they’re saying you can’t watch this film, that’s pretty much what it means by such limited number of screens. You pretty much can’t get to it.
AT: Did you know when you made this film that you were transgressing the taboos of your culture by making a film at this level of violence?
Kim: The level of violence that I was portraying in the film I thought was very on par with what I’ve seen in international films that were brought into Korea – and films in Korea that were released before, so I was surprised that my film and the portrayal of these things would be so adversely accepted.
AT: I would suggest the issues there are similar to the Winterbottom film, The Killer Inside Me. Did you by any chance see that film? I’m curious because it asks the audience to identify with the protagonist who is doing all of these things, as Hitchcock would do, you know, or Ripley. It’s a question of identifying with the perpetrator.
Kim: I heard a lot about the film, especially last year, and I think I heard that there were some very harsh reviews on it, and I should definitely take a look at the film, but I don’t particularly like very violent films myself, so…
AT: Really (laughs). Well let’s go back to the beginning. The villain is so insanely, egregiously horrible, that you want the cop to catch him, obviously, and the fact that he goes a little insane in the process of doing that, and adopts the same methods, is part of what’s so interesting about it. I want to know from you what was the genesis of this, and why if you don’t like violence, you took on this subject?
Kim: This kind of violence is the most prominent form of sickness in our modern society, whether it be person-to-person, or maybe organized governmental violence towards inequality and violence and just being forceful in that way. I think that kind of phenomena is one of the most prominent problems we see in modern society today. For me to portray this there has to be a point of irony in the film and trying to capture that irony is what I was coming up with, and the personal dilemma of a man that must become the devil to defeat the devil was what I was most interested in.
AT: Mr. Lee, you are the one who has to become the devil in order to beat the devil. Talk about what happens at the beginning of the film and what sets you off, who you are and what happens to you that makes you become this relentless pursuer of the devil, who slowly heads over in that direction.
Lee: Actually people think this is about one normal guy who becomes the devil, but I think this movie tells about the process of revenge and the telling. When the audience sees the process of revenge, people will think differently, because if we say somebody’s killed by someone, so he revenged him, then that makes sense, everybody agrees with the “Ok, you could do that.” But, if they see the detail of the revenge then they will think different.
AT: Yeah, you do get caught up in it. The movie sucks you into identifying – these people are so horrible, so awful, and they’re funny. They’re deliciously horrible, they’re entertainingly horrible, but at the same time you’re dead serious, and you get caught up in all the methods, all the different crazy ways that you achieve your ends. Who’s smarter than who? The villain is so brilliant that you have to be pretty damn good to get him. For you, what was the line between making the film entertaining and making it horrific?
Kim: I think that when I’m trying to make a film I want to make something that I would want to watch myself, rather than comparing myself to other films that have been made. I like to give the line of reference where I personally am able to enjoy the film that I am making. As far as filmmakers that I respect and like, Martin Scorsese, the Coen brothers, David Fincher, even Tarantino. I think these directors know how to use violence well and effectively so that the audience can feel the same kind of thing that way. Those are the kind of things I’m looking for and I’m trying to do, I’m trying to transfer these emotions to the audience.
AT: I understand. What sequence in the film for both of you was the most challenging and difficult to execute just logistically as you were shooting? I’m thinking perhaps of the elaborate sequence in the house.
Kim: Many people after they see the film are very curious about the camera rotating in the taxi scene, and the logistics of that, and the camera tracking the people inside the mansion moving around the whole thing is also of curiosity to people. I think those scenes are definitely time-consuming, but they weren’t particularly difficult. More so than any particular scene that was difficult was portraying the darkness of human beings and squeezing that out of people, I could say. To portray that and carry that on film was the most emotionally draining and painful thing to do. I think portraying the dilemma of becoming the devil that Shin has to go through, I think that’s the most difficult thing to film.
Lee: From the beginning to the end, it was so hard mentally and physically because from the beginning I have to keep the emotion of a lot of pain and loss –
AT: You lose your wife right at the beginning, your pregnant wife.
Lee: Yeah, I have to keep those emotions till the end, so that’s one of the hardest one. But one good thing was the ending. Actually, there was another ending scene, but I suggested to him to make this one the ending.
AT: Explain what the two different endings were.
Lee: It was really good and he was satisfied. Actually the Korean version and the oversees version is different. Especially the ending, there was no sound in the Korean version just only some music. Yesterday I was really surprised by that there was real live sound of my voice in the ending, so it was a little different. I always suggested, make the sound coming out in the theater, but he didn’t accept it in Korea, but he changed it in the overseas version.
AT: Tell me why (SPOILER ALERT).
Kim: It’s a small difference, but in the Korean version the last moments of him sobbing are kind of muted out and there’s no sound from him, but rather the ending is carried through with a bit of swelling music. I felt that maybe it was imposing too much on the audience to identify with the music and draw out some more emotion. I was thinking that maybe for the international cut that I would keep his sobbing as regular audio and focus more on the person and maybe tone down the music a bit more so I’m not forcing you to feel. It’s less of an imposition on the audience, so I wanted to draw the focus back to the person on the screen. I think if the Korean version was focused on some definite ending for the film, than this focus on swelling emotion and stuff like that. In the international version I was trying to focus on more of his last moments of his visage, of what we see on camera, and focusing on the actor.
AT: Were those the only changes made in the international version, or did you tweak it throughout?
Kim: I put back in a lot of the more violent scenes that were taken out for the Korean cut because of the restrictions.
AT: So what I saw in Toronto was the international version?
Eric Kohn, indieWIRE:
“Lusciously shot in shades of black, blue and blood-red, I Saw the Devil opens with a murder in the snow…Although largely programmed on the festival circuit as a horror movie, I Saw the Devil deviates from pure scare tactics with its integration of cops-and-robbers style espionage and thrilling hand-to-hand combat, as the two men repeatedly confront each other.”
Matt Singer, IFC:
“Torture porn may have run its course in American cinema, but it’s alive and (mentally un)well in South Korea, a country whose brutal horror movies in recent years put ours to shame. The Koreans are kicking our butts when it comes to horror with both brains and guts. I’m referring to two different kinds of guts, by the way: the gooey, gunky, bloody kind of guts and the brave-enough-to-push-and-provoke-an-audience kind of guts. Saw the Devil isn’t quite torture porn but it takes all of the core elements of that subgenre — graphic, sadistic violence, fundamental questions about decency and morality — and spins them into something better: entertaining, thought-provoking, and scary as hell.”
Lisa Schwarzbaum, EW:
“In director Kim Jee-woon’s wildly violent, genre-pushing vengeance pic, Choi [Min-sik] goes to town as the embodiment of murdering, torturing evil; Lee Byung-hun plays the equally mono-minded special agent seeking maniacal revenge for the death of his pregnant fiancée. Somewhere in all the blood (sickening realism is a selling point), a question is posed: When does the one fighting a monster become a monster himself?”
Chris Bumbray, JoBlo:
“I Saw the Devil was a deliriously violent treat I was lucky enough to catch towards the end of the Sundance Film Festival. A shockingly violent thriller, I Saw The Devil was so disturbing to many in its native South Korea, that the film ran afoul of the local censors before hitting theaters. Luckily, at Sundance we were able to catch the full, uncut version of one the most exciting serial killer thrillers I’ve seen since Se7en…You’ve got to hand it to the South Koreans. Nobody makes thrillers like they do…As shocking a film as I Saw the Devil is, the thing that really surprises me is that no Hollywood studio has snapped up remake rights to the film, as this is as commercial a thriller as you could possibly imagine. Imagine The Silence Of The Lambs crossed with Taken, and you have a good idea of the type of film we’re dealing with here.”
Elizabeth Kerr, THR:
“Devil is troublesome at best, offensive at worst. Yet again women have no role to play other than being brutalized and the film loses sight of its point in order to wallow in its lurid violence. The idea that exacting revenge does nothing to bring closure and only results in more misery falling by the wayside early on. The world as drawn by Kim and co. comprises sociopaths and psychopaths — including the ‘hero’ and nothing in between…that’s not to say Devil doesn’t have any redeeming qualities. It’s impeccably produced, and Kim has a firm handle on every shot. The torture is creative to say the least (gentlemen should brace themselves for Soohyun’s punishment of a perceived internet porn fan),…Kim has launched himself into the exploitation pantheon.”
Brad Miska, BloodyDisgusting:
“I could talk for hours about the film, but nothing I can say will ever do it justice. The film is an experience; it’s something that will have you emotionally invested in the characters, while also covering your eyes at the extreme violence.”
Nick Schager, Slant:
“Another Korean revenge fantasy that negates its moralizing by wallowing in the ghastliness it nominally asserts is unfulfilling and destructive, I Saw the Devil concerns the cat-and-mouse game played by secret service agent Joo-yeon (Lee Byung-hun) and the serial killer, Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik), who abducted and dismembered his pregnant girlfriend…If I Saw the Devil doesn’t have a single thought in its blood-splattered head that isn’t borrowed from The Last House on the Left, at least it delivers its hackneyed lesson with some style, as Kim’s direction has a sleekness that’s creepily at odds with his bluntly depicted carnage.”