Sunday, January 27, 2013

I Saw the Devil (2010)

I’ve seen some brutal revenge films in my day (I Spit on Your Grave, Mother’s Day and The Horseman come to mind), but nothing quite as potent as I Saw the Devil, Korea’s umpteenth such offering alongside Park Chan Wook’s world-renowned Sympathy trilogy. This 142-minute opus might actually be the ultimate revenge film and the reference point for all future films of the same ilk. You could say that it is the Citizen Kane of revenge films, not only because it is surprisingly well crafted, with splendid art direction and amazing camerawork to boot, but because of its sheer brutality, which perfectly captures the self-defeating, cyclical nature of revenge and the useless bloodshed that it involves.

Fueled by the lowest, most brutal masculine impulses, which themselves are intrinsically tied to « violent » film genres, I Saw the Devil is an in-depth study of visceral violence, its raison d’être and dire consequences. With a number of stabbings and slashings exceeding the three digits, each of which actually contributes to character development, the film is bound to find a comfortable niche amongst open-minded film critics and genre enthusiasts alike. Add to that a bone-chilling turn by Min-sik Choi as one of the greatest, most terrifying villains in movie history, and you’ve got a well-deserving contemporary classic.

Violence is in the foreground here.

As in all revenge films, the premise here is rather simple and straightforward. Protagonist loves girl, girl gets brutally murdered (and raped, and decapitated, and dismembered…), then guy goes mad, chasing the antagonist in order to dish out pain in equal measure to his own. What sets I Saw the Devil apart from the myriads of similarly-themed offerings that came before is the intricate nature of the protagonist’s plan. You see, our cop friend actually catches the killer halfway into the film. That is when we understand that his revenge plot is far more complex, and far more akin to the killer’s own M.O. than we had first envisioned. It is not enough for him to break the villain’s arm and beat him to a pulp because there is a dark impulse inside of his soul, a terrifying impulse that will make him go overboard.

Having made a promise to his dead wife according to which he would inflict as much pain to the killer as was inflicted upon her, Kim Soo-hyeon sets up an elaborate trap for his nemesis, tracking his movement only to lengthen his agony, dishing out supplementary punishment whenever he sees fit. In doing so, not only does he become a monster himself, but he also gives his foe sufficient latitude to strike back, thus thickening the plot a great deal, allowing it to curl around and fall back on itself like the snake eating its own tail. As the visceral outbursts of violence multiply, so too does the trail of corpses grows exponentially and each of the two main characters start crumbling under the weight of their testosterone-filled testicles.

When you stare long enough into the abyss...

While the “revenge film” is not a genre per se, one could call it a concatenation of other genres, most prominent of which are the action, thriller and horror genres, all of which contribute narrative devices and visual patterns to the “revenge” lexicon. Here, all three of those genres are mastered to perfection. Featuring epic, nervously edited fight scenes involving a wide array of blunt weapons, slashing weapons, stabbing weapons and firearms, the film could easily rival any serious martial arts extravaganza. Then, there are some nearly unbearable torture sequences that could challenge any Saw film, but without all the moralistic bullshit, nor any of the traps’ needless complexity. There are no elaborate contraptions to contend with, no ticking time bombs or intricate mechanical devices, but only rusty guillotines and knives. Violence is not intellectualized here, but instead made visceral, transposed if you will, into the world of animals where it belongs. Add to that an inquisitive camera that probes its surroundings like a hardened gumshoe, as well as a maelstrom of a plot that twists and turns toward a gut-wrenching finale, and you’ve got a surprisingly well-rounded film that has managed to please serious critics and undiscriminating gorehounds alike.

I Saw the Devil is an exemplary genre entry that should please all the gents the world over. Unfortunately, that is where a crack develops in the film’s façade: it will unlikely appeal to feminine sensibilities, especially in light of the fact that women are herein depicted almost exclusively as the helpless objects of male violence. Although it does criticize the testosterone-fueled fantasies of the protagonist by likening him to the monster he is tracking, the film also taps directly into the spectator’s own macho impulses to deliver a high-octane piece of entertainment. Whatever your sensibility dictates however will not change the fact that the film is entirely coherent in its desire to depict a form of visceral logic that defies the rationality of the common thriller. By vying to frame a human being’s primordial drive to forcefully submit another’s flesh to his own dominion, the film cannot avoid violence, but should embrace it instead. I Saw the Devil is a study of violence, its dire consequences and its roots deep within our most secret, most primordial selves. As such, it must display its object as proof, which in turn helps create a raw narrative that rings truer than any police thriller, or romantic comedy ever will, despite their incidental brushings with true human emotions.

Testosterone-fueled fantasies see women
as mere collectibles.

It should be obvious at this point in the review, but while the brutal violence onscreen is the film’s most salient feature, one cannot tag I Saw the Devil as pure exploitation. Sure, the screenplay is entirely derivative and its lesson about the evils of retaliatory violence somewhat overdetermined, but the aesthetics involved in its elaboration go way beyond the reach of any other revenge film. There is more here than just stating what is wrong and what is right or challenging the spectator’s own right-wing inclinations. There is a dense, and breathtaking world about to leap from the screen, and the sublimeness of this world derives directly from the technical proficiency involved in its creation.

To me, the most striking technical feature of the film is the camerawork. The camera is always on cue here, and always focused on the most relevant detail of the scene, hovering around the scenery to reveal more and more details, each more increasingly relevant than the last. It is a detective probing the space for clues, enlarging the scope of the protagonist’s own investigation with utmost efficiency, adding a touch of subtlety to his crude, brutish methods. As such, it becomes a player in the story, a quiet observer that reveals every new atrocity with unflinching, and unnerving aplomb, always keeping us at the edge of our seat by sharpening our sense of anticipation to absolute dreadfulness.

The camera does not merely move around the scenery however. It also photographs that scenery with great care, thus creating a rich visual landscape full of unforgettable set pieces. One should know exactly what to expect from the camera by simply looking at the very first scene, a testament to the impeccable photography and virtuoso camerawork to come. Being a tracking shot taken from inside the killer’s vehicle, it probes the snowy scenery with the same inquisitive candor as that to come, piercing through the darkness to constantly reveal new terrain, but without ever revealing the big picture. It also manages to perfectly frame the elegant quietude of snow, its purity and subsequent soiling with the blood of the protagonist’s wife.

Obvious motifs are saved by the sheer
quality of their execution.

The motif is quite common and it has been used a million times before. The whiteness of a surface is soiled by the crimson blood of a murder victim, creating a violent visual contrast between innocence (or the orderly nature of things) and the monstrosity of a killer (the intrusion of a chaotic element to disturb the orderly nature of things). Here, it is depicted through a tracking shot that originates from the snow-covered roof of the victim’s car, then moves down to frame the trail of blood extending from the driver’s seat to the body of the victim as she is dragged through the snow. Now, the motif might be quite overdetermined, but that’s without taking into account the sheer beauty of the scene, and the perfect aspect of those little specs of snow. There is some incredible beauty in the world, something almost otherworldly on which the camera lingers. But then, there are horrible things lying just beyond the threshold of beauty, things which the camera fully embraces in its depiction of our schizoid reality. So, there is blood-soiled snow, but then there is the mortuary chrysalis from which the victim emerges as the next scene opens. The imagery is quite powerful here: the victim-woman ripping apart a plastic bag wrapped around her like the butterfly emerging into the world only to be pinned down by a collector. Again, natural beauty is soiled by the evils of man. In the next scene, the portrait becomes complete as the young woman’s severed head is found in a quiet pond. The water is gorgeous and pure, and the large hairball at the bottom of the pond peacefully wavers along with the algae. But then, the hair unwraps to reveal a dead face and beauty is soiled again. Hence the camera once again contributes its commendable attention to details to the ongoing process of creating a truly affective visual landscape.

The natural landscapes may be crucial in creating a dichotomy between everyday beauty and the horror of man, but the impeccable art direction also contributes its fair share to the film’s iconography by creating mood-specific settings. The killers herein being characterized beyond the scope of normal thrillers, the background artisans working on the film have zealously created some memorable murder dens for them, dens full of various props hailing from different eras, and which suggest a wickedly postmodern take on psychoanalysis. In turn, there appears a stark opposition between the stuffy, disorganized interiors of all killers involved (one of which is a remorseless cannibal) and the orderly, tidy, but empty interiors of the good guys’ homes. By thus making intricate visual patterns to emulate the different characters’ states of mind, each with their own elaborate take on life, I Saw the Devil easily rockets past the competition and into the realm of high art.

I Saw the Devil offers us a privileged look 
into the mind of a killer.

While praise must be given to everyone involved technically, none of the film’s success could be fathomable without the commanding presence of thespian Min-sik Choi as the main antagonist. By creating, and sustaining, a man without pain, without fear and without remorse, he seamlessly manages to earn a spot as one of the greatest film villains of all times. Say what you will about grandiloquent James Bond villains wearing suits, repressed slashers from Italian giallo or elegant serial killers from high-end Hollywood thrillers, but they will never outdo the present monster, a testosterone-filled beast that acts on impulses as if they were orders from God. The man is not neurotic, nor repressed. He is a simple psychopath with the drive of a wild beast, and as such, he is seamlessly portrayed by Min-sik. When asked by a supplicant first victim not to kill her, he mundanely asks: “Why not?”, then proceeds to dismember her. The fact is that there is no greater agenda to this man, no greater goal or revenge plot that he needs to carry. He simply does whatever he wants, whenever he wants, without ever having a second thought about it. His hand is swift and instinctive in delivering blows with blunt objects, then the rest of his body is swift in taking what he wants from his captive female victims, then maiming them to dispose of their remnants. He is a man to constantly indulge in immediate gratification, and as such a terrifying onscreen presence emanating from a society where the efforts necessary to do good are often overlooked in favor of the availability of evil…

While certainly overlong, and overly violent, for many moviegoers, I Saw the Devil should be required viewing for any genre fan, as it encompasses many flawlessly executed genre staples under the larger banner of the revenge film. The quality of the filmmaking at hand actually makes this offering far more than a simple exploitation film, allowing it to shift into the realm of respectable, “art” cinema. It also helps emphasize the ongoing cleavage between American cinema and Asian cinema regarding the quality of genre cinema. Whereas mumblecore and B-series now seem like the only saving grace for Hollywood, revenge films have now gone mainstream in Korea, earning praise from international critics everywhere they go. Still, you have to wonder to what extent the Korean obsession with revenge plots hails from an American legacy…

4,5/5    A contemporary genre classic by any standard, at once an extremely well-crafted and powerful revenge film featuring one the greatest villains in film history, as well as a superior meditation on the very nature of violence.