By Willie Krischke – May 26, 2011
It can be difficult to find a way in to the cinema of another culture, and, even despite its impressive catalog of really excellent films, the Korean New Wave is no exception. Park Chan Wook’s movies (“Oldboy” and “Thirst”, among others) are one way in, but they are often so stylized, and the style so different from what plays at the multiplex, as to be offputting. The bestselling movie in Korea, Bong Joon-Ho’s “The Host,” is a monster-comedy; it seems like the kind of thing that would go over well in the USA, but the humor and its delivery is so culturally Korean that I found it hard to watch.
I’d recommend “I Saw the Devil” as a great starter film for anyone wanting to dip their foot into the world of Korean New Wave cinema. Directed by Kim Ji-Woon, “Devil” is a bloody action thriller; another reviewer recently called it “Jason Bourne meets Hannibal Lecter.” Dae-su Oh is a relentless, brutal serial killer who preys on young women. But his latest target is the pregnant fiance of Byung-hun Lee, who works for the Korean Special Forces and has access to some really neat gadgets. Also, he can kick the crap out of anybody. Lee hunts Oh down, then, instead of killing him or turning him in, plays catch-and-release; he forces him to swallow a GPS tracker and a microphone, and every time Oh starts to relax, Lee catches up to him again and beats the holy hell out of him. This isn’t about justice; this is about revenge. But it’s easy to confuse the two.
“I Saw the Devil” is, in many ways, reminicent of “No Country for Old Men;” it’s a story about two men who are outside the rules and morality that govern the rest of the world, and the relentless and intense contest of wills between the two of them. Oh is especially good (and reminicent of Javier Bardem) as the conscienceless serial killer who has nothing but contempt for his victims, and indeed the whole world, and is generally smarter and stronger than everyone around him. There’s a scene in a doctor’s office that plays almost exactly like the coin flip scene in “Old Men.” It’s also just as bloody, violent and horrifying as that film; and approaches its violence in much the same way; nothing’s particularly glamorized here, but Ji-Woon doesn’t exactly hold back or look away, either. This is not a film for the squeamish, but then hardly anything coming out of Korea these days is.
Thematically, “I Saw the Devil” is an examination of revenge. Lee does some terrible things and lets many innocent people die while playing his game with Dae-su Oh that could’ve ended long before. There are good people who are close to him who beg him to stop, and people he used to work with wonder if it’s okay to become a monster in order to defeat a monster. Of course, nothing Lee does will bring back his loved one, no matter how much pain and suffering he inflicts upon the perpetrator. And one wonders before the movie’s halfway done if he’s achieving anything at all; Dae-su Oh, in spite of constantly getting beaten, seems to be enjoying the little game they’re playing more than Lee does. This is the way he wants the world to work, even if he’s not the victor in that world. In the film’s final frames, as Lee walks away having finally exacted his revenge, he begins to weep. It’s the first time he’s shown any grief, or really any emotion, in the film. One wonders if he’s weeping for his lost fiancee, or for everything else he’s lost in the process of avenging her.