Watching this film makes Adi Iskandar wonder why we can’t all just get along.
“I will kill you when you are in the most pain. When you’re in the most pain, shivering out of fear, then I will kill you. That’s a real revenge. A real complete revenge.” Kim Soo-hyun, secret service agent.
Korean cinema over the past decade or so have grown stronger and stronger, with ever increasing box office returns as well as higher regards held for its auteurs. A number of them, such as Park Chan-wook and this film’s Kim Ji-woon, have crossed over into English language productions, while some of its stars such as Lee Byung-hun have also found gainful employment in significant enough roles beyond national borders.
This wasn’t always the case, though. The socio-political contexts did not allow for the kind of envelope pushing we tend to see nowadays in many Korean cultural texts. Perhaps a starting point of this was ‘Shiri’, a film that explored some intrapeninsular tension by way of a North Korean terrorist plot. Hammering it home was that film’s box office success, which helped to instill audience confidence in the creation of more locally-produced content.
Linking that to this is the presence of Choi Min-sik, himself a strong political actor. Protesting plans to reduce a quota that protects Korean films screened in the country around the mid-noughties, he promptly retired, a Gandhian sacrifice aimed at making people aware of the seriousness of the situation. There was a strong belief that the strength of Korean films came about only by way of strong structural support, such as economic backing from major conglomerates, as well as the synergy found between film and their infinitely more popular (at least on the Asian continent) counterparts in television, and that major changes in this structure would threaten the culture industries as a whole.
At around about the same time, there was a sub-genre of vengeful retribution made popular by some of the auteurs above. This film, ‘I Saw The Devil’, is a fine addition to that oeuvre, serving along with ‘The Man from Nowhere’ as a kind of revivalism of the film bloodletting that plateaued in the mid-noughties. All the key players here are not completely innocent on that front, the seminal ‘A Bittersweet Life’ and Park Chan-wook’s ‘Vengeance’ trilogy evidence of a guilty past.
Here Choi Min-sik plays Kyung-chul, a school bus driver who also happens to be a serial killer. He preys largely on women, killing them for sport before chopping them up to pieces to cover his trail. There is little that is actually subtle about him, though his attention to detail is fine, ensuring that his tracks are covered. It was with such confidence, then, that he alights on Joo-yun (Oh San-ha), stranded in the middle of nowhere with a flat tyre. You can guess what happens next, but even Kyung-chul couldn’t know that Joo-yun’s fiance is a secret service agent of the National Intelligence Service (think the Korean version of the Central Intelligence Agency). Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), driven by revenge and despair, promises he won’t stop until he has made the killer feel the same amount of pain Joo-yun (and their unborn child) went through.
You’d think, therefore, that an unsophisticated country bumpkin (as Kyung-chul appears to be) would stand not much of a chance against a highly trained agent of technology such as Soo-hyun. In truth, you’d be right: Soo-hyun identifies the correct person quickly enough in the film. Soon after their first confrontation, though, he sets him free, even providing some money for Kyung-chul to move around. The trap is set, and so is the scenario: this is a story of the hunter and the hunted, with Soo-hyun setting upon his prey whenever Kyung-chul is about to commit a criminal act. Each time, he inflicts just enough pain to make him suffer without truly incapacitating him.
You’d think, therefore, that it does not fit in with quite a number of more conventional film narratives. The structure basically gives away the murderer, and we as the audience are left with only a modicum of satisfaction to be gained from a ‘whodunnit’ perspective. I find this an interesting turnaround of events. Though it does not claim itself to be original, I first noted this in the film ‘The Chaser’. Directed by Na Hong-jin, that film also had an antagonist who admitted to his crimes up front. The race, then, is to find the proof to nail him, which proved to be just as suspenseful, if not even more so.
This film is similar in that regard. The audience’s position is usually very privileged. We know who did what, but the exposition in the film’s diegetic world entails complex turns here and there, before everything is truly revealed. In this case, Soo-hyun had the proof, and Kyung-chul didn’t exactly work all that hard to deny anything. The suspense comes from the following question: how far are you willing to go to avenge the death of a loved one? How useful is vengeance for our purposes? What positive outcomes could result from negative emotions?
A scene in the middle of the film was incredibly revealing. His fiancee’s father Jang (Jeon Kuk-hwan), a cop himself, had second thoughts after aiding Soo-hyun earlier. He wondered how far down the road he had gone, but didn’t quite have the guts to ask him to call it off. Just as he was about to hang up though, Joo-yun’s sister Se-yun (Kim Yoon-seo) grabbed the phone and asked all the hard questions. When will it be enough? What will this serve? It won’t bring back the dead. How will you know if you’ve won?
Kyung-chul himself raised this in a phone conversation with Soo-hyun, a continuation of the quote from the start. “You already lost. You think you got me? I don’t know what pain is. Fear? Don’t know that either. There’s nothing you can get from me. So… you already lost. Got that?” This makes the titular devil that bit more defined or ambiguous, depending on how you started off.
In the beginning, I identified the devil in question as Kyung-chul, simply because of his rather inhuman acts. Some scenes were truly gruesome, hammered home (sometimes in a literal sense) by blunt objects used to silence his victims. Here, an intertextual understanding allows us to connect to Min-sik’s previous roles; I briefly mentioned his turns in the ‘Vengeance’ trilogy, which featured some pretty nasty acting on his part. In particular, he made effective use out of a hammer in the famous scene from ‘Oldboy’, the synonymity of which made me feel this scene from ‘The Raid 2’ was as much a tribute to that as it is its own plot point. Here he used a sickle instead, though it made him no less sicker than before.
However, as the story progresses, I could see a descent into darkness that makes for some interesting character study. I mentioned before of Lee Byung-hun’s regular foray into Hollywood fares (sometimes it still blows my mind that he is a Terminator; by itself I see it as a significant step forward for non-mainstream performers). Acceptance on that front by the Western world is something not to be sniffed at by those subjugated to its influence, but what the West have also missed out on (thus far) are all sorts of nuanced performances, where Byung-hun truly flexes his acting muscles in leading roles. Rather than being typified by the supporting acts cut from cookie cutter templates, ‘I Saw The Devil’ is a great example of an artist being given a blank canvass to draw upon, even with colourless ink; note the silent moments in a film of extreme violence, stillness that highlights the emotion behind each motion.
The mental and spiritual internal is thus externalised as physical retribution. Thus the question becomes for me, “Who is the real devil here?” If that is put on the table, I also problematise the term ‘I’. It might have been Soo-hyun to begin with. It could also be Kyung-chul, haunted by that relentless avenging angel/devil. I suspect, however, that there is an element of us in that as well, for it is we, the omniscient audience, who can see and decide for ourselves. In a brief segment in CQ Magazine recently, Malaysian filmmaker Liew Seng Tat answered the question of what films and filmmaking means to him with one single word: “mirror”.
In that sense, this film reflects not only what is there but also what is not. It portrays our humanity or its lack with a cold objectivity that is rarely highlighted. Witness the thirst for revenge driven by the media in many social conflicts. There is a constant demonisation of that which we do not know, for fear of some kind of eventual retribution either imaginary or otherwise; as much as we may not be keen on it, at least to our mind we believe that there is evil in this world.
More to the point, how much are we willing to look at? The film’s producers had a tough time with the censors, even in a country that is as liberal as South Korea when it comes to the arts. Having seen the uncensored version, I have to say that there are certain things I wish I didn’t see. I can stomach a lot of things, but the mere thought of pregnant women being cut to pieces (you don’t see the whole thing, but it’s visual enough to complete that picture in your head) is not a palatable one for me.
We may not like it, but we’ll be glad that the likes of Soo-hyun is there to reflect even that void we all know we have but are not as willing to confront, on or off the silver screen. He may not kill them immediately, but at the very least he will expertly remove their achilles heel. Whether you flinch and/or cheer at this, or at the other gruesome scenes in the film, says a lot about the humanity in you as it does about the characters.
Better the devil you know.
Adi will only meet Choi Min-sik in bright daylight.
Featured image credit: Uludagsozluk Galeri