Via Correspondence: I Saw the Devil
Debuting a new feature, the two of us will be watching a movie and then dissecting it in conversation...only written. The way we aim to do this is take turns writing, as though we are corresponding via letters. We will also take turns selecting the movie. Isaac had seen this week's movie last week and asked if Jason had done the same, which he hadn't. The idea was then born when both had seen it.
Each of these discussions will cover the entirety of the films so expect spoilers galore.
This edition's film:
I Saw the Devil (2010)
Directed by Kim Jee-woon
Starring Byung-hun Lee and Min-sik Choi
Isaac: As a movie fan, one of my favourite experiences is when a film takes me off guard. When I watch something on a whim, knowing very little about it, and am completely blown away. The latest movie that did this to me was I Saw the Devil.
It combines revenge fantasy, over-the-top action, gross out horror, and suspense. It’s flashy, entertaining and beautifully shot, but also has the perfect depth of character for this kind of film; enough to make me care about their motives and safety but not so much that it takes away from the film’s mission. That mission is to lead the viewer from one inventive action set-piece to the next. The violence is brutal. It's that satisfying movie action you find in Kung Fu movies but it also has very real stakes. Death has ramifications in the world of this movie and that gives the action weight. And then there’s the suspense. Some of the most memorable scenes work because of how well the quiet moments before the chaos are handled.
Jason: So many people survive repeated blunt force trauma in this movie, it's incredible. I had a slight idea of what I was getting myself into, but not much. With a title like I Saw the Devil, you're not going to be getting some jovial rom com or kids' movie. Only Terry Gilliam would do something like that. And I remember this movie by its reputation as being a fierce piece of violent, bloody Asian pseudo horror (though it's more of a procedural thriller).
I'd say it's heavier than death alone, because it's arguable that those left alive are worse for wear. A lot of revenge-based movies focus on the catharsis of getting a come-uppance. Quentin Tarantino, the master of revenge fantasy, rarely ever touches on the folly of revenge. That's where I Saw the Devil really worked for me. It's not really new territory that revenge is a hollow game, but there were moments of vitality in how this narrative tackled it. Especially considering how the cat-and-mouse game between Kyung-chul (the killer) and Kim Soo-hyeon (his pursuer) is simultaneously thrilling, horrific, and morally dubious.
Isaac: You're right about the blunt force trauma. There were a couple of scenes where I was convinced a character had been killed. They would be beaten until their head seemingly caved in and then in the next scene they'd wake up disoriented but alive.
It's not easy to condemn revenge in a revenge story. Without it, you have no story. The movie manages to show the emptiness of revenge with sincerity while still allowing it to happen. Because no matter how many times Kim Soo-hyeon is reminded of how immoral his actions are, the plot demands that he goes through with it. The movie would be unsatisfying without the ultimate act of revenge. I agree that one of this movie's strengths is that it allows you to simultaneously be horrified at the monster Kim Soo-hyeon has become and cheer him on as he exacts his revenge.
Kyung-chul is one of the most memorable villains I've seen in a while. Choi Min-sik (Oldboy) is pitch perfect in the part. He is terrifying, resourceful, funny and even a little sad. That kind of complexity for what could have been a generic stock villain is an example of what I loved about this movie; it's the perfect balancing act between low brow and high brow, between work of art and satisfying junk food.
Jason: The set up works really well. The opening scene is filled with anticipation because, again, the audience knows something horrible is going to happen to the woman whose car has broken down. The kindly stranger is not going to actually help her. Her brutal murder and the subsequent discovery of her severed body lead Kim Soo-hyeon to his obsessive journey. His wife was everything, so what else does he really have to lose? His job? Secondary...his job is part of the reason he wasn't with her more often. He does get tunnel vision, forgetting about his deceased wife's family and how he's inadvertently dragging them into it, which is where his motivations start to seem fishy.
He's willing to put other women in similar danger to his wife in order to play his game. He becomes a participant and people other than his target suffer.
I thought Choi Min-sik was familiar. He played a somewhat similar villain in Park Chan-wook's Lady Vengeance -- which I thought was superior -- and was excellent in both. I hadn't realized he was the protagonist in Oldboy, that was surprising. While I never empathized with him, I was always fascinated. In a way I wish I knew more about his background and how his brain works, but maybe that would either humanize a character that doesn't need humanizing, or it would make him less terrifying. The mystery of his psychopathy lends well to the horror of the situation.
Isaac: Villain backstory is a slippery slope. They need proper motivation beyond the cartoonish love of being evil, but too much backstory ruins the mystery. The Phantom Menace, Rob Zombie's Halloween, Bates Motel, Hannibal Rising; all these backstories ended up defanging the most chilling villains and killers in film history. If you want to do a realistic drama about a serial killer, back story is important but if you want to make a horror/thriller I think it's better to give shades and hints of the character's history. It also helps to hire an actor with the dramatic chops to show the villain's human side through performance.
For me, this is another example of the expert balancing act this movie plays. We aren't explicitly told Kyung-chul's origin but we get hints of it. My favourite being the cannibal Tae-joo. We meet him toward the end of the film when Kyung-chul takes refuge at his hideaway. Tae-Joo is a demented killer, a guy who relishes the kill. He keeps his victims stacked in a freezer for later and feeds the parts he doesn't want to his guard dogs. His addiction to human meat has driven him even more insane. A common writer's adage is that the best way to show someone's character is through the eyes of a peer. Here we're treated to a hellish twist on that trope. Through their interaction we get a sense of their history together and that, as horrifying as Tae-Joo is, he fears Kyung-chul, considers him to be one sick bastard and maybe even looks up to him.
Jason: The mutual friendship between the two is well handled. For a moment it seems like we've encountered someone even more deranged and dark than Kyung-chul until it's flipped again and it's clear who the real force of nature is. It's not the blustery cannibal. It's the quiet psycho who casually states his presence.
One of my favourite scenes is when Kyung-chul gets picked up by the "cab driver." He ends up killing both the driver and other passenger in a brutal knife fight while in transit, but I couldn't help thinking about what other movie these strangers had come from. It's one of those oddly naturalistic touches, despite its savagery, that worked so well in this movie. These two bad asses, who were apparently out of their league, had been on their own path up to that point and just met the wrong guy at the wrong time. It makes me want to see their story up to that point. Maybe in a short or something.
Isaac: It's moments like the taxi cab scene that make this movie stand out for me. Not only was it a tense scene with a spectacular payoff, it hints at the kind of world we've entered. The universe of I Saw the Devil is slightly askew. It's a lot like our reality but with a little more danger at every turn. It also shows us that there are things happening in this world beyond our main plotline and that those things have an effect on the story. It really gives the film an epic scope that is rare for a movie about a serial killer.
I was constantly surprised by this film's versatility. It delivers on the action and suspense that's expected for this kind of film, but it also has quiet moments of beauty (the opening scene in the snow was gorgeous), a dark sense of humour and an inventive spirit. As I watched it I had moments where I was either in awe of the cinematography, moved by the emotional beats, laughing, cheering, squirming at the gore or yelling "holy shit!" at my television. I love it when a movie can play with my emotional response like it's an instrument.
Jason: And yet, I think it could have been cleaned up around the edges a bit. There are enough scenes of hand wringing by plot device police officers who offer little else to the proceedings and a scene early between Kim Soo-hyeon and his father in law. The latter is kind of necessary for their dynamic to work later, and the police involvement is to a point, but I felt these scenes were rushed in order to get to the meat. Maybe the rest wouldn't have been as effective without these scenes, I just wish these scenes held more impact and were less of a procedural cliché.
Isaac: They probably just existed to answer the question of "What are the cops doing about all of this carnage?" and of course the answer is "Nothing, they're useless."
Yeah, it's a cliché, but also the cops have to be useless for this kind of movie to work. In real life both Kim Soo-Hyeon and Kyung-chul would have been arrested about halfway through the movie. And that's not the movie I want to see. It probably could have been handled better but those failings didn't matter to me. I'm more of a movie fan than a movie critic and if a movie does as many things right as this one, I'll ignore all kinds of flaws. My opinion is a little clouded with affection but that speaks volumes about how effective this movie is. It's so good I refuse to say anything bad about it!
Next edition of Via Correspondence will be Lars von Trier's Europa.