I Saw The Devil
South Korea 2010
‘Let us be honest. The only men who can fight are those who do it for a living or those who build their lives around fighting.’
This quote comes not from the film but an Anfield Index football podcast. Nobody on the podcast disagreed with the football pundit. The other football fans understood. The violent consist of assassins, psychopaths and voyeurs. Not all assassins kill, boxers for example, and psychopaths can be charming. The rest of us like to watch and have been doing so for the last five thousand years. Indeed, our first response to violence in art is not to flinch at the pain but to determine the good guys so we can roar at the physical damage.
I Saw The Devil is a gore revenge movie. It satisfies those that like to roar but also challenges and queries the instinct. The assassin, Kim Soo-hyeon, is a low key James Bond. He is handsome and looks great in suits, which he appears to have bought just that day. He has a gorgeous girl friend that he loves. She is killed early, so characterisation is minimal but the fake sheepskin steering wheel cover helps. Soo-hyeon also drives fast cars and he can fight. He does not have as many gadgets as James Bond but the one he does have is a cracker. Jang Kyung-chai, the psychopath, drives a bus for the local girls academy. Inevitably, his employment does not last, less than full marks to his employment advisor. Kyung-chai is old, overweight, does not wear smart clothes and the friends he does have are cannibals. When he feels like sex, he rapes someone. Despite the differences the two men become involved in a violent battle of wills and mutual revenge. Obliged to escalate the violence they have more in common than they realise, and it does not require too much imagination to view their conflict as a metaphor for the destructive and endless wars that exist in the world today.
Many of those that watch I Saw The Devil will enjoy the gore. Director Kim Jee-woon has made several horror films, so it is difficult to imagine that his intention was to make an essay on the perils of violence and our hypocrisy as voyeurs. Yet anyone who watches I Saw The Devil and enjoys the next James Bond film with the same easy conscience has missed the point.
For a gruesome exploration into the nature and perils of violence I Saw The Devil is a good place to start. Violence fulfils our need for conquest, satisfies the desire to inflict pain and fear on enemies and ameliorates our own pain and fear. If that is not enough, it feeds popcorn fantasies. Watch I Saw The Devil and it is not difficult to believe that heaven and hell in the afterlife are only there because we need a violent metaphysical fantasy to satisfy eternal grievance.
Some have described I Saw The Devil as a poetical masterpiece. I am not convinced. The film is well made, makes the viewer think and there are fine moments. The opening of the film echoes the car that drives along Mulholland Drive in the David Lynch masterpiece but the director lacks the nerve and confidence of Lynch and does not linger. It still impresses. Snow falls outside the car while the faint Korean characters of the titles, like the snow, fade and settle into the celluloid images. The opening murder that soon follows has slick fast editing and an emphasis on the female victim that will remind viewers of Psycho. The final violent confrontation in the film, though, is nowhere near as profound as it pretends. Although it is gruesome and excessive, it is a good ironical twist in a thriller but no more than that. The emotional fall out on the hero that follows is empty and predictable and undermines the doppelganger theme of the film. But these final moments do contrast well with James Bond. He cuddles a female fantasy after he has murdered half the cast.
The limitations of I Saw The Devil do not mean that it is not an exceptional product from people who have talent and imagination. The film provides a strong sense of how violence can be used by disgruntled men to recast themselves as heroes and redefine the world around them. Violence, though, is painful, and it often inspires a reaction and escalation and more pain. People lose their tempers. In the mayhem, bystanders are affected. Both the avenging assassin and the psychopath in I Saw The Devil are responsible for the loss of innocent life. We have been here before many times, most memorably in Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky.
The 1949 British film Obsession also features two men in conflict. A methodical doctor has an attractive and impeccably mannered wife. Part of the charm of the movie is that it reminds us of when the British were well mannered and they understood the subtleties of their language. The methodical doctor kidnaps the lover of his wife and keeps him prisoner for four months. He intends to kill him after an alibi has been established. The wronged husband does not hate the lover, nor does he seek revenge. The doctor is intent on murder because he wants to alter the rules of his marriage. Like the psychopath in I Saw The Devil he has a need to redefine the world around him. There is understandable tension between the two men but throughout the four months of the imprisonment they remain cordial. The doctor has impeccable manners, like his wife, and the American values his own sense of humour. The violence in Obsession is minimal. It consists of a bullet shot meant as a warning and a failed punch. The film, though, has dark subversive themes. The police detective likes and admires the doctor, and the audience is relieved at the end of the film when the doctor escapes the death penalty. He made mistakes but deserves forgiveness.
The restraint in Obsession does not mean that the film has more subtlety than I Saw The Devil. Through their conversation the doctor and detective ask the cinema audience to think about violence and the violent in a different way. Those who watch I Saw The Devil are not guided by the dialogue. The assassin is taciturn, and the psychopath is foul mouthed. Everyone in I Saw The Devil is inarticulate and no help. The viewer has to make his own conclusions about violence, why it exists, attracts and appals.
The doppelganger theme is apparent but the headline ‘I saw the devil and I was looking at me’ is unsatisfactory. The film offers far more than that. In I Saw The Devil it is obvious that rape is the consequence of the male gaze. This is how violent men redefine the world with which they struggle to connect. The psychopath is terrifying, and, although the prospect of additional violence is worrying, we are eager to witness the psychopath being destroyed. Recriminatory violence does not merely satisfy blood lust, it promises relief. As the film argues and international conflicts make obvious, this is an illusion. Violence not only causes physical pain and wrecks lives, the disease is infectious. The avenger and his supporters, that is the cinema audience, are not the same as the psychopath but they will become violent.
I Saw The Devil is helped by a stunning and energetic performance from Chi Min-sik as the psychopath. Min-sik will never be forgotten for his role in the hard-hitting Oldboy. Lee Byung-hun who plays the assassin is also a dancer and model. The assassin may have loved his murdered fiancée but trapped in his pristine perfection he lacks empathy. His colleague steals the gadget that will help the assassin but the hints at recompense for his efforts are not recognised by the remote hero.
The film succeeds because it is well made and we are engaged by various mysteries. These are who will win, what will these crazed individuals do next and what will the screenwriter and director dare to put into their film. One of the best scenes in the film has the least violence; by the standards of the film a severed head is inconsequential. The numbers involved in the search for a missing victim gives a stylistic edge to the scene but the expanded scale also emphasises the disproportionate impact of violence on normal lives. Violence grabs the attention and affects communities. This is the appeal for the narcissistic adolescent slayers that haunt American schools. The black humour adds little to the film but it mitigates the weakness of the actors in secondary roles. One scene echoes John Le Carré. Paid enforcers can be powerless members of a bureaucracy. To help us understand this Le Carré had his low level spies live in tower blocks on council estates. The trick is repeated in I Saw The Devil when the harassed policeman returns to his flat and meets his rebellious daughter. The ease with which the psychopath persuades a woman to accept a lift also reminds us of the willing victims in The Boston Strangler.
In a film of exceptional violence ambiguity can be a moral weakness but an artistic strength. The meaning of the boxing gloves hanging on the washing line may be personal, social or philosophical or a mix of all three but, whatever the significance, like much in the film it remains in the brain.
Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. His 11,000 mile journey around Brazil is described in Innocent Mosquitoes. His latest book and compilation of horror stories is called Nightmares Ahead. Published by Red Rattle Books and praised by critics, it is available here.
If you want to read more about his travels click here.