|Damn Korea! You scary!|
I Saw The Devil is a movie about revenge, its consequences and its worth. Opening on a dark winter’s night at the side of a lonely road, we are introduced to two young lovers. Joo-yun (Oh San-ha), her car having broken down by the roadside, talks to her fiancée and secret agent Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun) as he finishes an unspecified job. Then, all too soon, Joo-yun is dead, the victim of Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) a psychopathic serial killer and rapist. Soo-hyun, grief-stricken, vows to make Joo-yun’s killer experience her pain and sets out on a campaign to physically and mentally torture Kyung-chul until that is achieved.
As you can imagine, this is some heavy stuff, and the film’s best features have to do with emphasising the darkness of the subject material. One particular trait of Korean cinema I find is that they never shy away from the gruesome. Such is the case here. The killings are brutal, blood and gore flying every which way, to the sounds of the damp cracks and snaps of butchered flesh. Soo-hyun’s torture targets some wince-inducing areas as well: one scene in particular had the backs of my ankles aching in sympathy. This brutality is enhanced by some excellently choreographed action, with Soo-hyun and Kyung-chul duking it out in lightning-fast hand-to-hand combat, wielding a vast variety of weapons from sickles to caltrops.
Furthermore behind all the darkness and violence lies some excellent characterisation and acting. Soo-hyun is a simple character, as most vengeance-film protagonists are: he has suffered loss, and his actions are as much about resolving his own pain and guilt, as they are about extracting them from his fiancee’s killer. But this emotional simplicity is given great depth by the strength of Lee’s performance. There are two points in this movie where Lee conveys more feeling with his eyes than some actors do with their entire bodies: the first time I even wept in sympathy with the devastation I saw before me. The portrayal of Kyung-chul on the other hand has little in the way of emotional connection: the man is a shameless monster. And this is no sophisticated, Hannibal Lector style serial killer either. Kyung-chul is dirty, obscene, lecherous and thoroughly unhinged, madly rambling justifying statements as he acts on his killer instincts. Indeed there is a veneer of something comprehensibly human here that overlays the monster beneath, leading to a creation as interesting as it is disturbing. Such a character requires great skill to play and Choi never falls short.
But I Saw The Devil still has problems for me in its pacing. The structure the film takes is a constant cycle of suspense, horror/action and calm interlude. These sections taken individually are always great: there are a couple of good scares and the opening scene in particular has incredible atmosphere. But even great things can become repetitive, and the dour, serious tone of the film doesn’t help. The interludes of calm between the excitement began, towards the end of the film, to lose my interest, and the suspense was less effective purely because I wanted the movie to hurry the hell up. The long and the short of it is, you make a very serious film, you make it tight. I Saw The Devil at times felt flabby and it annoys me that that got in the way of all the quality onscreen.
I Saw The Devil then is very much recommended, as is the whole modern Korean cinema scene, especially for those who like their movies dark, brutal and emotionally powerful. This isn’t out on very wide release, so if you want to watch it it’s likely that you’ll have to wait until it comes out on DVD. But however long it takes, do not miss out on this movie.
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