For the Love of the Game
by David Ehrlich
I Saw the Devil
Dir. Kim Jee-woon, North Korea, Magnet Releasing
Kim Jee-woon is stuck. The emerging Korean auteur may have transcended the boundaries of his national cinema (his next film is supposedly an English-language thriller for Lions Gate), but for all the implacable velocity of his films, Kim remains stilted by his obsession with the peripheries of genre. I Saw the Devil—a warped serial-killer saga that sprints to its expected conclusion in under an hour and then spends ninety minutes bloodily pioneering the untenable darkness that lies beyond the margins of most thrillers—finds Kim so concerned with violating his film’s expected trajectory that everything else becomes subservient to his structural gamesmanship. Kim’s unyielding priorities ultimately render his characters disposable and didactic, their struggles and desires mitigated by those of their creator.
I Saw the Devil provides a brutal and rusted prism through which to consider Kim’s entire output thus far. His breakthrough success A Tale of Two Sisters found the director collapsing J-horror precepts onto a tender domestic drama, and The Good, the Bad, the Weird was a frenzied mélange of approximately every mode of expression that ever was or may ever be—it’s as if Kim has been staging an extended oratory on the fluidity of genre, and it’s indeed high praise to say that the filmmaker’s rhetoric has never been more salient and full-bodied than it is in his latest work.
Things begin under an obfuscating cloak of night. The twin headlights of a sedan uneasily make their way through a black country night—visibility is at a minimum, a telling portent of how the uncertain trajectory Kim’s plotting will later embrace. A flat tire. The driver is revealed to be a beautiful young woman named Ju-yeon—Kim’s camera stays tight on her face as she phones her fiancé Soo-hyun (stone-faced superstar Lee Byung-hun) for comfort and counsel. He sings to her, and suggests she wait for a tow-truck to arrive rather than accept the assistance of the man with the heavy jowls who’s tapping on her window. Ju-yeon is nervous, but she should be terrified. The opening credits resolve with that sinister samaritan mercilessly husking Ju-yeon’s naked body; the subsequent scene informs us that her betrothed is an elite special agent every bit as deadly and vengeful as he is handsome, and just like that we’re off to the races.
Kim sprints from the starting gate, rooting his plot atop perpendicular narratives that barrel towards each other with a rare skill and concision. Both threads are studiously indebted to films that remain the defining standards of their respective genres—Soo-hyun’s torrid quest for his fiancée’s killer plays like an abridged riff on Oldboy, and the wanton murders with which they’re intercut invoke the casual abductions of Silence of the Lambs. Yet for all of their well-honed visual acumen, these early sequences are overcast by a curious lack of suspense. Soo-hyun begins with only four suspects, and for the viewer there’s never any doubt that the man he’s looking for is played by Choi Min-sik.
Outraged by the screen quotas he felt to be stifling his country’s native cinema, Choi, the most feral, fearless, and elastic leading man of modern Korean movies, submitted himself to a self-imposed hiatus—here he appears in his first film role since playing a serial child murderer for Park Chan-Wook in 2005’s Lady Vengeance, and it would seem as if that character has been incubating all the while. His Kyung-chul—as the film’s title suggests—is imbued with the indomitable banality of pure evil. He rapes and kills young women with reckless abandon, devoid of any overarching plan that would hint at where the film might go with the rest of its 144-minute running time. By allowing Soo-hyun to close in on his prey with nary an obstacle in his path, Kim distills the thriller down to its genome, removing all contrivances so as to make his audience as docile and unawares as possible for the eventual rug pulling. In order for Kim to color outside of the lines he first has to trace them, similar to a cubist sketching a square before exploding it into the third dimension. Kim squeezes a three-act structure as though in a vice, hurtling towards the end of the line like a crash-test dummy hoping to plow through the wall and survey what’s on the other side. His goal doesn’t seem to be to articulate the limitations of genre so much as to exploit them for the expectations they instill, violating their precepts so as to dislocate his viewers more than he might by shirking convention altogether.
It’s Soo-hyun through whom Kim is able to eclipse the indulgent genre wankery of his previous work, as the hero’s pedagogic nature allows I Saw the Devil to become Kim’s first film in which the protagonist is part and parcel of the violent structural contortions, rather than simply subservient to them. Soo-hyun requests only a two-week sabbatical from work—believing his vengeance to be a finite enterprise that he’ll be able to resolve and conquer. He moves with an invincible certainty through the first portions of the film, a well-coiffed wrecking ball of righteous anger. Kim guides Lee Byung-hun through the familiar territory of recent Korean thrillers, contriving to borrow (or at the very least recall) one instantly recognizable location directly from Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder, as if to underscore the film’s stock topography. Yet once Soo-hyun captures Kyung-chul, he finds the sudden closure to be unsatisfying, and elects to release his prey in order to restart the hunt. At this pivotal crossroads I Saw the Devil becomes completely unmoored from convention, its abrupt deliverance from a clear trajectory emphasizing the inherently shapeless dimensions of revenge, as well as creating its own meta narrative of viewership in which I Saw the Devil toys with its audience in much the same way as Kim’s protagonist does his prey.
Things get loose and jazzy as convention yields to chaos—Kim careens from a sensational vehicular mass stabbing to a cannibalistic couple, pausing to touch upon everything in between (and that’s a lot). The plot is ostensibly motivated by Soo-hyun’s descent into depravity, as he’s predictably consumed by the same evil he chases, but it’s not long before the action seems motivated only by Kim’s desire to keep things spinning madly on and on and ever onward. The film is too restless to ever really drag, and watching the unremitting Choi remains one of the great pleasures of the modern cinema (no other working actor has such unfettered access to the id). Yet the inertia of Kim’s plotting endures as the film’s most compelling insight into the speed and totality with which people blindly submit themselves to reprisal, and as things chug along it’s increasingly clear that Kim continues to have more fun using his characters than exploring them.
As Soo-hyun repeatedly satisfies his vengeance with diminishing returns—capturing and releasing Kyung-chul over and over again until the joke wears thin—Kim’s dedication to velocity comes at the expense of a growing number of equally interesting ideas. The film sadistically delights in Soo-hyun’s facile journey from man to monster, but his moral untethering is barely enough to sustain the level of interest Kim demands. Moreover, it’s hardly worth glossing over at the expense of exploring other tangents, most notably a recurring motif about the hereditary nature of guilt and a lingering concern with the invincibility of male purpose (their bodies just don’t quit until the narrative has used them up).
Of course, Kim’s inarguable suspense chops help the whole thing to go down easy. Each of his films has been an expertly calibrated ride, and the man seems even more confident with a camera than he did in the exceptionally fluid The Good, the Bad, the Weird. The rigid classicism of his framing—the pronounced camera usually gliding about on fixed rails—continues to make for a satisfyingly visceral contrast when things become abruptly frenzied and unstuck. Kim’s unyielding obsession with the decay of the human body is every bit as visceral and real as that of Darren Aronofsky, and often rooted in a much deeper (and more grotesque) curiosity. To that end, Kim’s greatest aesthetic achievement might be his continued attention to sound design, as the jacked up and front-loaded mix contributes to a sustained auditory assault that refuses to let viewers catch their breath or clear their head.
Unfortunately, none of his protracted audacity can fully compensate for the fact that Kim continues to couch his most interesting ideas in prohibitively uninteresting films. While the form of his hero’s journey is exhilarating in its dislocation, its actual beats are tired and reductive. By the time Soo-hyun and Kyung-chul engage in their interminable final confrontation (following a jaw-dropping rescue scene that is worth the price of admission itself), the film is downright Brechtian in how bluntly didactic it has become, as if Kim doesn’t want his audience to consider genre geometry alongside his characters’ journeys, but rather at their expense. It feels like the work of a filmmaker hog-tied by his own obsessions, and as a result I Saw the Devil is a film as provocative as it is unsatisfying.