Kim Ji-woon’s I Saw the Devil: more than just gore?

Aashish Gadhvi speaks on behalf of three LKL reviewers: Kim Ji-woon’s latest is a disappointment.

Hype can be a film’s best friend or its worst enemy. In the case of some films it has worked (The Blair Witch Project) and in the case of others it has backfired spectacularly (Star Wars Prequels), but the fact is that in the modern age of internet hysteria and film geekdom, hype is something that has to be coped with. So when news hit the world that Kim Ji-woon’s latest film I Saw The Devil (악마를 보았다) has been heavily cut in Korea and been called to be banned, gore fans rubbed their hands in anticipation. So let’s get the obvious question on everyone’s lips out of the way first. Is the film really that violent? Easy answer: yes. The violence is genuinely shocking and horrific and even at times funny. The acts of violence against women in particular are very difficult to watch. But is there anything else to this film, or is it just an excuse to gore up and have a blood-soaked bonanza? The devil it seems may be in the detail.

Lee Byung-hun as Kim Soo-hyeon
Lee Byung-hun as Kim Soo-hyeon: Cold and calculated or just plain boring?

The stars involved in this film may also have resulted in the hype. Lee Byung-hun plays Kim Soo-hyeon, a detective whose girlfriend is brutally murdered by Jang Kyeong-cheol played by Choi Min-sik, returning from self imposed exile. Now this story line it seems has been done to death (pardon the pun), and anyone clued up on the language of cinema would know that the detective will track down the killer and inflict his own brand of justice. Thankfully the process of looking for and finding the killer all takes place within the first 20 minutes, leaving the path free for Kim Ji-woon to take us down a new route. Or does it? The Chaser featured an identical route with the ‘cat and mouse’ discovering each other early in the film. The main difference with Devil is the way in which this unique brand of ‘justice’ is handed out. Instead of finding the killer and killing him, Soo-hyeon decides to inflict excruciating amounts of pain, then leaves Kyeong-cheol within an inch of his life, and in some cases helping him get better, to start the cycle all over again. Despite the morality of this or even the confusing motives behind it (revenge or enjoyment?) it must be said that this is a genuinely different narrative route that we are taken down and is fairly enjoyable to watch. Some of the scenes in which Soo-hyeon brings the pain received applause from the audience, who clearly enjoyed this ‘justice’. However it was fairly obvious to tell that Soo-hyeon wasn’t going to have it his own way and that the roles would be reversed, and this is where the film fails and falls back into generic traditions which we have all seen before.

Choi Min-sik as Jang Kyeong-cheol
Choi Min-sik as Jang Kyeong-cheol: Spontaneous or over the top?

The dilemma for a film like this is how can you make something which is so unique that it stands alone in a genre which is so synonymous in the country and industry in which you work? The answer is that you can’t. Every tiny little detail in Devil instantly brings up images of Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy or indeed The Chaser. In fact one might even wonder if Kim Ji-woon had just seen The Chaser and decided to remake it apart from a few minor changes. It wouldn’t be too harsh to say that this film, given its director and stars, is a disappointment. The main reason why it is disappointing is because we have seen it all before. Although the violence in this is far more brutal than any of those films, there is very little emotional engagement or desire for the hero to succeed. The title also raises fairly obvious questions, which Kim Ji-woon confirmed in the post film Q & A, of who the real devil is: the cop, the killer or the audience. Indeed there was a sense of excitement and almost enjoyment of the violence, but this probably had more to do with the predictable story and lack of emotional investment: there was little sense that the audience was being addressed with guilty finger-pointing, Michel Haneke style. One of the causes for this problem may have been the very strange performances of the two main actors. Kim Ji-woon described Lee Byung-hun’s performance as ‘cold and calculated’ and Choi Min-sik’s as ‘spontaneous’ and praised their polar opposites. Others might interpret that as ‘boring’ and ‘over the top’. One wonders why these mega-stars chose to get involved in the project. Either way it didn’t help the overall aim which at times was confused to begin with. The other problem with this film is the almost box ticking technique of its ‘Asian extreme’ traits. One can’t help but wonder whether this film was just made to order for an overseas exporter (in which it will no doubt succeed), as well as being remade into a big budget Hollywood film. The ending leaves the audience with an empty feeling, which was intended by the director. The route and reasons for that emptiness however, probably weren’t. I Saw The Devil offers a few thrills and gut spills, but very little beyond that.

Kim Ji-woon’s I Saw the Devil screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2010 on 6 November. The festival continues in London until 14 November.

3 thoughts on “Kim Ji-woon’s I Saw the Devil: more than just gore?

  1. I was speaking to a Korean friend who has seen the film three times now. She made two observations:
    (1) The transformation of the Lee Byung-hun from being the caring husband / family man at the beginning to his state at the end of the film where he makes family play a big part in the revenge on Choi Min-sik’s character is a key theme of the film. I’m not sure it came out in the acting though.
    (2) Unlike some of Kim Ji-woon’s earlier films, Kim did not write the scenario for Devil. It was apparently Choi Min-sik who saw the scenario first and suggested it to Kim. IMDB also confirms that this is the first of Kim’s films that he didn’t write himself. Maybe if it was his own idea it might have been better?

    • Philip: I Saw the Devil had nothing to add to the Vengeance Trilogy and The Chaser apart from gore. What was Kim Ji-woon thinking of?
    • refresh_daemon: Sad to hear it. I loved Kim Jiwoon’s output until The Good the Bad and the Weird, which was just all right.
    • Philip: I’m with you. Devil was a huge disappointment. Good Bad Weird was good as hyperactive fun, but earlier work much better.

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