THE GEISHA OF GORE:
I SAW THE DEVIL (2010)
By Colleen Wanglund
One of my favorite movies is the Korean horror film A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (2003), which was written and directed by Kim Ji-woon, and is still the highest-grossing film in Korea. Kim has developed quite a cult following among fans of Asian horror, but not just because of his movies. When Kim puts out a DVD, he oversees the process himself and loads it with extras and commentary. Kim has also directed the segment “Memories” in THREE EXTREMES 2 (2002) which was the best segment, in my opinion, and he directed the Sergio Leone-inspired THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE WEIRD (2008), which is a bizarre western with a cool twist ending. The movie that just may catapult Kim Ji-woon to the top of the list of best Korean directors is I SAW THE DEVIL (2010).
I SAW THE DEVIL stars Min-sik Choi, who was brilliant as the main character in OLDBOY (2003) and also starred in LADY VENGEANCE (2005). Choi plays Kyung-chul, a serial killer who has managed to evade arrest and prosecution. On a snowy night, Kyung-chul spots a young woman in her car on the side of the road. The young woman, Joo-yeon (Oh San-ha), is waiting for a tow truck to fix a flat tire. Kyung-chul stops and offers Joo-yeon help; she refuses and he returns to his vehicle. A few minutes go by when Kyung-chul then attacks the woman, knocking her unconscious and dragging her, bloody, through the snow—symbolic of the loss of innocence. He loads her into the school bus he drives (another symbol of lost innocence), taking her to a hidden room in his home. Joo-yeon, now stripped naked and tied up, begs Kyung-chul not to kill her but he does it anyway. He then dismembers and disposes of her body.
The movie then cuts to a scene of a boy finding a severed ear near a river (a nod to David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET (1986) no doubt), and the police force is out en masse because Joo-yeon’s father is Section Chief Oh (Ho-jin Jeon) of the local police department. When Joo-yeon’s head is found, the scene becomes total chaos with police trying to get the head to the CSI team as quickly and discreetly as possible and reporters swarming the area hoping to get a picture. After all, the more sensational or controversial the picture, the more money they make—it’s a disgusting display; like sharks on a feeding frenzy. Then we see the utter despair on the face of Chief Oh and on the face of Joo-yeon’s fiancé, Secret Agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee, who also starred in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE WEIRD). Cut to the funeral and the grief suffered by everyone.
Soo-hyeon takes a two-week leave of absence from work and with the help of Chief Oh decides to go find Joo-yeon’s killer on his own. He is given the files of the four main suspects and seeks them out one by one until he hits on Kyung-chul, who has another victim in his clutches when Soo-hyeon finds him; that victim was one of his charges on the school bus. Soo-hyeon has his chance to avenge his fiancé’s death but in an odd twist, he doesn’t kill or capture Kyung-chul. Instead he forces a capsule down Kyung-chul’s throat and breaks his wrist. The capsule is a tracking and listening device. It seems as though Soo-hyeon wants to play with his prey. Soo-hyeon has yet another chance at Kyung-chul and beats him to a bloody pulp, and in a difficult scene to watch, Soo-hyeon severs Kyung-chul’s Achilles tendon. He then leaves him to get medical care and continue the intricate cat-and-mouse game.
Soo-hyeon follows Kyung-chul to a house where a friend—and fellow serial killer and cannibal—is hiding out. This is a weird but important turning point in the movie. It is here, after telling his friend what has been going on, that Kyung-chul figures out who it is that’s chasing and torturing him. There is another violent confrontation between the two men, but this time things are different. Soo-hyeon has underestimated Kyung-chul and he will pay for that mistake. The cat-and-mouse game continues, but who is the cat and who is the mouse?
I SAW THE DEVIL is an amazing movie. Kim Ji-woon manages to push boundaries in this genre-bending epic about the effects and consequences of unrestrained violence. And make no mistake, the violence is extremely graphic and at the heart of this story. It is what motivates Kyung-chul and what results from Soo-hyeon’s grief. DEVIL is part horror, part revenge fantasy, part action flick and all psychological thriller, and Kim takes every opportunity to delve into the darkest parts of the human psyche.
Kyung-chul is one of the most frightening characters since Michael Rooker’s Henry in HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1986). Choi Min-sik, who had proven his acting ability in Park Chan-wook’s OLDBOY, plays Kyung-chul brilliantly and with a charisma that keeps the viewer thoroughly interested in him. He is repulsive and evil to the core and yet engaging—you are disgusted by Kyung-chul yet you cannot look away. Kyung-chul commits violence because he can and he enjoys it. He is very matter-of-fact about his actions. There is no emotional response of any kind—he is a man without a moral compass.
On the other hand, Soo-hyeon’s violence is the result of a devastating event in his life. He is responding the only way he knows how to an extreme emotional upheaval, and Byung-hun Lee brings that across effortlessly. His expressions, and at times lack thereof, tell the viewer what he’s feeling. The subtext of I SAW THE DEVIL is the twisted relationship between Kyung-chul and Soo-hyeon. And it is a relationship of co-dependency. Soo-hyeon needs Kyung-chul to feed his rage at the loss of his happy life. Kyung-chul eventually needs Soo-hyeon to get his thrill, especially after the tables are turned in this dangerous game of revenge. At one point Soo-hyeon’s would-be sister-in-law says to him “Revenge is for the movies.” What Kim shows us in DEVIL is that the need for revenge can potentially lead to the loss of one’s soul.
As I’ve said, the movie is quite violent, but in no way is the violence gratuitous. What I find interesting is that Kim gives us an up close and personal view when victims of both killer and agent are beaten into unconsciousness. The camera doesn’t flinch when Kyung-chul is beating a woman with a lead pipe or a hammer, nor does it flinch when Soo-hyeon breaks Kyung-chul’s wrist or when he slices up his Achilles tendon. These scenes of violence are prolonged and squirm-inducing in their intimacy.
What I do find interesting is that Kim takes that intimacy only so far. For example when Kyung-chul has Joo-yeon naked, bloody and begging for her life, the scene of her murder and dismemberment is framed very differently. We don’t see the cleaver slice into her flesh….although we do hear it. We see the blood flow and the body parts briefly in a basket but the act of her murder is never shown. Kim leaves the act itself up to the viewers’ imagination, which in my opinion makes it far more disturbing. In some respects DEVIL is reminiscent of Takashi Miike’s ICHI THE KILLER (2001), although without the black humor.
Another aspect of DEVIL that I enjoy is that Soo-hyeon starts out the “hero” but slowly becomes an anti-hero. He seems to believe that even though he is hunting and torturing an evil and remorseless murderer, he has the moral high ground. The capsule he uses to track Kyung-chul is almost symbolic of Soo-hyeon playing God. Ultimately Soo-hyeon is nothing more than an angry man who is capable of the same level of depraved violence as his quarry, and at times it’s enough to make your skin crawl. The only thing that actually makes these two men different is what motivates them. And just when you think that Soo-hyeon may be able to redeem himself, the unnerving end of the film makes you wonder—where is the line between good and evil? It can get quite fuzzy at times and Kim makes that glaringly clear.
I SAW THE DEVIL is a long movie, clocking in at 144 minutes, but it is definitely worth the time. There’s plenty of gore and violence to satisfy most horror fans, but the real driving force of this movie is Kim Ji-woon’s unflinching look into the dark souls of two men. Kyung-chul is an emotionless monster, while Soo-hyeon’s emotional response to his loss can potentially turn him into a monster. If you have the stamina to sit through this gut-wrenching and polarizing future cult classic, then I strongly suggest you do so. Between Park Hoon-jung’s script, the beautiful eye of cinematographer Lee Mo-gae, and the stylized directing of Kim Ji-woon, I SAWTHE DEVIL has easily made it into my top ten best Asian horror movies list. While definitely not for the squeamish, I highly recommend it.
© Copyright 2011 by Colleen Wanglund