Friday, June 5, 2015

I Saw the Devil - Movie Review

I Saw the Devil
Original Title: Ang-ma-reul bo-at-da
Dir. Jee-woon Kim

Spoiler Free!

Imagine a world in which Craven's Last House on the Left was subtly-made, compelling, beautiful, and ends up actually meaning something... Well, guess what: minus the famous 'biting' scene, you're in luck!  I Saw the Devil is your ticket.

This Korean horror-drama by Jee-woon Kim takes the cliche secret-agent revenge flick to a new level.  After only 53 minutes, this movie had the main characters in 'the final showdown', and I was baffled at what it was going to do with itself for the remaining hour and a half.  Well, it does plenty, weaving a plot so satisfying it had me clapping with sick glee.

A psychotic killer by the name of Kyung-chul (played by Min-sik Choi), kidnaps, rapes, and murders women.  One of those women was the fiancee of secret agent Soo-hyeon (played by the handsome Byung-hun Lee).  Taking two weeks off work, Soo-hyeon begins to track down her killer in the most badass way possible.  He doesn't faff around with investigating his suspects, he just sneaks up, assaults them, and gets them to confess about whether they're the killer.  Just so you know how serious he is, he smashes one rapist's junk with a hammer - just for good measure.  After two dead ends, he tracks down Kyung-chul and the real story begins.

There's a magnificent fight scene in a greenhouse that establishes Kyung-chul as physically intimidating and ruthless, but also establishes that Soo-hyeon is an unmitigated bad-ass.  Soo-hyeon WRECKS Kyung-chul.  But then, Kyung-chul wakes up with bruises, a broken wrist, and an envelope full of cash on his chest.  And this is where the movie takes off.

See, just killing Kyung-chul would be too easy, to simple for Soo-hyeon.  He wants that monster to suffer in pain and fear, just like Soo-hyeon's fiancee did in her final moments.  Thus I Saw the Devil takes us on a twisting ride that I can genuinely call cat-and-mouse without hating myself.  Kyung-chul goes about his serial-killing psychopathic business, stalked and repeatedly beaten by Soo-hyeon.  Along the way we meet all manner of strange low-lifes, cannibals, innocents, and diligent cops trying to tag along in Soo-hyeon's wake.

But do not mistake I Saw the Devil as a mere action-thriller.  There is no emotional triumph at the end for Soo-hyeon.  Justice is not served.  When all is said and done there is only blood and cold and despair.  And despite the fact that I Saw the Devil wallows heartily in all the great things about the horror movie psychopath (placing it squarely in the horror genre, I think), it maintains a steady, fundamental undercurrent of existential darkness.  It's the same theme that plenty of artsy movies try to get at, just without the wham-bang fight scenes and outstandingly rendered gore.  Sort of like if The Bicycle Thief were re-written by a Nebraskan teenager in a Cannibal Corpse t-shirt.  But then somebody with taste took it away and made sure it was good.

One of the best things about this movie is that, as it progresses, one isn't sure exactly who the Devil in it is.  At the mid-point, the perspective of the movie tilts toward Kyung-chul, the killer's, almost making him the protagonist as he bullies doctors and rapes a nurse.  This part, in particular, was where I felt the Last House on the Left resonance the most.  I was always put off by how LHotL seemed more concerned, even sympathetic, with the raping, murdering hooligans than the totally dorky, lame-o parents.  Perhaps it's the cynical part of me that knows there's countless douche-bags out there that agree.  Likewise, Kyung-chul runs around like an MRA's comic-book hero, not taking shit from old people, telling it like it is, complaining about how "the bitches are always out to get him", and generally being a huge prick.  But, a prick than has no compunctions about slitting your throat with a broken piece of glass.  This said, when Soo-hyeon begins to haunt him like a relentless spectre, I Saw the Devil almost seems to say that Soo-hyeon is the devil, and that's AWESOME.

But of course, nothing is so clear cut.  Later, as we see Soo-hyeon's broken condition, it is clearly Kyung-chul that was the devil.  Kyung-chul destroyed everything about Soo-hyeon's life, including his ability to be himself.

However, I don't mean to oversell the complexity of this movie.  What I'm trying to explain is that this movie deftly examines the most rudimentary blocks of morality and how our actions influence our identity.  It doesn't go very deep, so don't expect it to.  However, it goes deeper than I ever expected a movie like this to go.  Gory revenge flicks almost seem hard-coded to be mindless, pointless, and pornographic in the most boring of ways.  I Saw the Devil is not.  It's fun, exciting, scary, gruesome, but also puts the effort in to be good at all.

The reason why I react with such enthusiasm to this movie is that it's a bit of a rare bird.  It's an example of a horror movie that is splashy and satisfying enough to please the most plebeian audience, but is well-made enough to make stern critics shrug and admit it's not ALL BAD.  And this isn't just in the plotting or the excellence of the acting.  The editing (and subsequently, the pacing) is magnificent.  I Saw the Devil takes its time to show character development, while seamlessly advancing through the engrossing plot.  It's shot beautifully, in stern, wintry greys that are exploded apart by bright blood sprays.  Further the manner in which the camera conveys its action (even outside its color palate), is masterfully conducted.  If this convinces you: it's the first time I've ever seen the Michael-Bay-360 happen in a movie and actually BE GOOD.  Mindblowingly good.  Good because it makes the onscreen action claustrophobic, yet entirely visible in necessary ways.

In conclusion, I would recommend I Saw the Devil to anybody who likes a horror movie.  Because even if you don't go in for the splatter of serial killers, you can at least enjoy it for being a well-made film.  You can enjoy it for how it (might) make you cry, and (might) make you cheer or laugh.  You can enjoy it for how it doesn't turn away from its moral implications and inevitable personal repercussions.  But really, when you get down to it, it's just one of the hands-down best showings in the revenge-flick category you're likely to see.


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