MARCH 4, 2011
If not for a slightly misguided and pace-killing sequence during the film’s 2nd act, I Saw The Devil would be a nearly perfect film. It's remarkably accessible (despite the fact that it's from the director of the nearly impenetrable Tale Of Two Sisters), the bloody revenge tale is quite compelling, and the two leads (including Oldboy’s Min-sik Choi) are fantastic. And even though the typical serial killer stuff is confined to the first act, it’s actually got a few scares. In short, it’s got a little bit of everything – though that was a bit too much for me.
Roughly 85 minutes into the 140 minute film, our serial killer antagonist seeks refuge at the home of a friend of his – another serial killer (who is also a cannibal). The concept itself is fine, but again – this is a 140 minute film, and this 20 minute sequence doesn’t really serve much purpose in the long run. It also provides the film with yet another big climactic fight between the two leads, something we had seen twice already and obviously have another one to go. Personally, I don’t like it when the enemies face off too many times in a movie. Once near the beginning is fine, but then their next showdown should be saved for the ending. It’s the same problem I had with Demolition Man (on the brain because I just watched it at the New Bev a week ago) – Stallone and Snipes fight like four times before we get to the climax, and by then I was just sort of numb to the sight of these guys whaling on each other. It would make a great deleted scene - there’s a gag with a knife (or screwdriver?) handle that was pure brilliance – but within the film it just slowed the pace down considerably and didn’t really advance the plot. It was also a bit repetitious – Choi’s character was there to seek medical attention, same as he was the last time they met up and fought, and they had already introduced the idea that Korea is apparently loaded with serial killers (from an earlier cab scene where the other passenger is also a killer).
Otherwise – terrific stuff. It’s sort of like a grim version of the movie Changing Lanes, with the line between hero and villain becoming rather blurry as the two men constantly go out of their way to make life hell for the other. It starts when Kyung-Chul (Choi) murders the pregnant girlfriend of our hero, Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee, best known for G.I. Joe I guess). It doesn’t take too long for Lee to track Choi down, but he doesn’t want to bring him to justice quite yet. Instead he beats the piss out of him, and then puts a tracer in him that allows him to track him wherever he goes. And whenever Choi tries to kill someone, Lee shows up and beats the shit out of him again. The idea is that he wants Choi to feel like he is the victim being stalked, so he can feel what Lee’s girlfriend and the others felt. So there’s a bit of repetition in the design, but apart from that “other killer” sequence it totally worked for me.
Whether it worked for the audience is another matter. I saw a couple walkouts, which is to be expected given the very gruesome violence and even a rape scene where the girl appears to be in her teens. But there was also a lot of laughter during some of the violent scenes, most of which I didn’t find very amusing (and I have a rather sick sense of humor). I don’t know if it was nervous laughter or what, but it was very distracting. I was also sort of puzzled by their reactions to certain things – at one point Lee slices into Choi’s Achilles tendon, and everyone winced and groaned and what not, and there were some angry “No!” cries during a scene where Choi beat Lee’s father-in-law over the head repeatedly, yet they were silent during the rape? No protests for that? Weird.
It’s almost a shame that the Seven/Zodiac type serial killer stuff is so brief, because it’s scary as hell. There’s a terrific jump scare early on that even I jolted hard from, and the snowy and dark locales made for some wonderfully creepy and suspenseful build-up scenes, particularly when he picks up a girl waiting for her bus and drives along the deserted road. And the scene where Lee’s girlfriend’s body is found is just incredible, both from the chaotic Korean press swarming the area trying to get a photo, and the disturbing discovery of her head floating in the water (excellent makeup work here too), not to mention the subsequent accident that results in it falling out of the box it has been placed in and rolling around in front of her father. It’s horrible and fascinating at the same time.
I also liked that Choi wasn’t the usual movie serial killer who either speaks in pretentious babble (or Bible verses), or acted all suave and coldly calculating like Hollywood thrillers. Instead, he’s just kind of an irritated asshole. Think Nicholson’s character from As Good As It Gets when he’s at his worst, and then just replace “OCD” with “tendency to bash people’s heads in”, and you will have a good idea of his demeanor. It’s somewhat amusing at times (I love the bit with the doctor who thinks he got the injuries from playing soccer), and definitely different than most movie killers.
I did occasionally wonder about the subtitles though. I love Magnolia and Magnet for bringing foreign horror over to our neck of the woods, but by now we’ve all heard about what they did on Let The Right One In’s original DVD release (putting dumbed down subtitles in place of the more correct translation), and at times I suspected the same thing here. You know in Lost In Translation when the Japanese guy talks for like 30 seconds and it “translates” to a 3-4 word phrase (I forget what it was)? Not to that extreme, obviously, but there are instances in the movie that reminded me of it, where a girl would talk and clearly make a two-part thought (let’s say something like “Are you hungry? Do you want me to make you something?”) and the subs would just offer a brief one part translation (in that example, perhaps “Want dinner?”). Other times it seemed more or less “even” in terms of words on screen to words being said, so I don’t know. Hopefully I’m just paranoid. Luckily, unlike Tale Of Two Sisters, it’s not like I could possibly be misunderstanding the movie or anything, as it was fairly straight-forward.
And the less time you spend reading, the more time you can spend appreciating the gorgeous visuals. It’s a remarkably colorful film, almost like old-school Argento at times, and there’s a nice balance of dark and light scenes. Red obviously comes up a lot (this movie has to have some sort of record on showing fast-forming pools of fresh blood), but the palette is very wide-ranging, another unexpected surprise (I heard it was “like a Korean Seven” and immediately pictured a movie filled with browns and grays). There’s also a wonderful energy to the action scenes, particularly the big finale where Lee “kidnaps” Choi in the middle of a police capture, as well as their first fight in a greenhouse. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jee-woon Kim was the next director to be courted by Hollywood (assuming he hasn’t been already) – I think he could make a really kick-ass Bourne type action film.
The rape and often quite disturbing violence might put some off, but if you could handle Oldboy then you should be fine with this. The length doesn’t really hurt and the two leads are endlessly watchable, plus even the weak spot of the film has its moments. A terrific film.
What say you?