Wednesday, March 09, 2011

I Saw the Devil: The Killer Instinct Inside Us All

I Saw the Devil
Directed By: Kim Jee-Woon
Written By: Park Hoon-Jung and Kim Jee-Woon
Starring: Lee Byung-Hun, Choi Min-Sik, Chun Kook-Haun, and Chun Ho-Jin
Director of Photography: Lee Mogae, Editor: Nam Na-Young, Production Designer: Cho Hwa-Sung, Music: Mowg
Rated: Not Rated, and probably with good reason

            Director Kim Jee-Woon really knows how to setup the cruel world his characters exist in. In the opening of his latest film I Saw the Devil, a young woman sits quietly in car as the silent and gorgeous snow falls around her. She’s got a flat tire, and her fiancĂ© sings to her on the phone (though from the quiet bathroom of the secret service mission he is on). Even a nice school bus driver offers to help her change her tire. Unfortunatley, that bus driver is in fact Oldboy star Choi Min-Sik, and he’s a serial killer, who smashes through her windshield. Later, when her body has been bloodied, she pleas with him, telling him she is pregnant. Mr. Choi ignores this fact, and continues his hacking job.

            It would be easy to deride Mr. Kim’s sadistic and often unpleasant world for just those reasons, but that is not why I found I Saw the Devil so boring. Mr. Kim, who has taken on multiple genres like the horror (A Tale of Two Sisters) and the western (The Good, the Bad, and the Weird) is the type of director you want to reinvent the way we look at the serial killer genre, a movie type that has been sorely lacking for some time, save for David Fincher’s Zodiac. And with his perfectly crafted sequences, filled with pitch-black humor, Mr. Kim can suck us into the logic of his world. The boyfriend of that poor girl turns out to be Lee Byung-Hun, and he wants revenge.

            But his revenge isn’t what we would expect. Mr. Lee finds Mr. Choi at about the fifty-minute mark of the film, and Mr. Kim could easily finish the film after Mr. Choi receives a good ass kicking and death. But Mr. Choi lives, and at the precise moment he is about to take his next victim, Mr. Lee appears once more to kick his ass. The film becomes blatantly obvious in its question of which one of these men is truly the titular devil (the answer is we all are). So as the narrative progresses with its almost clockwork-like narrative, we are treated to a multiplicity of final showdowns, instead of building it to a climax.

            However, such a structure also holds Mr. Kim back from truly reaching a cinematic height. Instead of creating tension and leading us into this story, he simply becomes repetitive. The bloody violence is expertly crafted, and frankly difficult to watch, but Mr. Kim understands how to dig into your skin, and shows no sympathy for either his audience or his characters. Such unrestraint is quite audacious, but you would wish Mr. Kim had more to say and to do with I Saw the Devil. As the film continues on with the constant violence, it becomes, of all things, boring. Setting up the next grotesque moment loses its shock value, and the lack of characterization for Mr. Lee especially pains any stake we put into the film (Mr. Choi feels more developed because he is so good as playing damn crazy).

            At two and a half hours long, I Saw the Devil becomes unnecessarily pointless. It makes its case in the first hour, and then repeats it on end over the next 90 minutes. For a director who is such an expert at drawing us into worlds we would otherwise hate to exist in, Mr. Kim is unsure what it all means to truly be a killer.

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