February 26, 2011

Devil's Advocate

by Steve Dollar

I Saw the Devil

As the new Korean thriller I Saw the Devil opens, a young woman sits in her car by a snowy roadside in the proverbial middle of nowhere, waiting on assistance to deal with a flat tire. She passes the time by chatting with her husband-to-be, a special agent on security detail at a fancy hotel who ducks into the bathroom to sing a syrupy love song over his cell phone. The cross-cutting heightens the tone of self-conscious gooey-ness—emphasizing the impossible cuteness of the moment and the model-pretty actors—even as the inevitable looms. Everyone knows what happens when attractive female motorists get stranded in the middle of the night in movies called I Saw the Devil (or in the cold open of any episode of any CSI or Law and Order franchise). Momentarily, a yellow short-bus pulls up and a spooky, if seemingly kindly fellow emerges. She gently refuses repeated offers of help, which is what any sane person would do. So the Good Sam turns Freddy Krueger. Windows smash. The victim screams amid a feckless effort to escape. And… blammo! It's hammer time.

I Saw the Devil The bloody hammer is practically a trope in Korean cinema these days. It was fetishized in Park Chan-wook's Oldboy, in which the title character, played by Choi Min-sik, swung it with brutal fury, exacting vengeance after a mysterious 15-year imprisonment by unknown captors. It's also the weapon of choice in The Chaser, Na Hong-jin's 2008 whack-fest in which an ex-cop-turned-pimp pursues a serial killer kept killing by a corrupt police department. The same year, Kim Jin-Won's The Butcher imported pig masks and chainsaws into the repertoire, framing the carnage as an underground POV snuff flick. The tool also supplies the coup de grace in Breathless, an underseen, tough-guy character study from 2009. People, it's gnarly.

I Saw the Devil Choi returns, hammer at the ready, in Devil. Only this time, he's the psycho: a relentless serial killer named Kyung-chul. Again and again, he deceives his prey with his choice of vehicle and gentle demeanor, even as he gives them the willies with his ratty, homeless dude coiffure and probing eyes that never take no for answer. As the film slowly unfolds, director Kim Ji-woon reveals Kyung-chul's method in—excuse the phrasing—bits and pieces. He's got a ritual, perversely enacted in a dank abattoir, where the cranially dented victims are stripped naked as the killer savors their pleading, as well as other things. Then: Off with their heads. Before the latest noggin turns up floating in a rural pond, a ring flies off a limp finger into a blood-drenched gutter. He doesn't know it yet, but Kyung-chul has invoked the wrath of super-cop Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun). That head belonged to his fiancée.

I SAW THE DEVIL director Kim Jee-woon This meticulous, deliberate and stylishly composed introduction sets the stage for a clash of wills that feels at once hyperbolic and excruciatingly intimate. Like so many Korean films, its runtime appears to be infinite. Yet, it's one of the very few I've seen that justifies the length (two-and-a-half hours). It takes that much cinematic expanse to play out a sadomasochistic pas de deux of escalating violence and devastating collateral damage, as the putative good guy transforms himself into a ruthless and brutal stalker in the name of vengeance. Director Kim, whose last effort was the wacky Spaghetti Eastern The Good, the Bad, the Weird, pulls out all the stops. I Saw the Devil previewed last night at Brooklyn's BAMcinématek, part of the six-film retrospective "Severely Damaged: The Cinema of Kim Jee-woon," which takes its cue from the Korean government. The film censors threatened to ban Devil because its scenes of graphic torture could "severely damage the dignity of human values." That's the best review a movie like this can have. But to accommodate, Kim trimmed seven minutes of footage. Yet, this symphony of grievous bodily harm isn't about shock and exploitation. The director's skills as an image-maker are highly stylized, imbuing the unthinkable and graphic with a disturbing poetry that makes the most overplayed plot points in the genre feel charged with vitality. The old "cop versus psycho" theme is pushed to the hilt: To catch a monster, you must become a monster.

I Saw the Devil The two terrific (and apparently indestructibly superhuman) leads make an ideal pair. One torn and frayed, a hulking wound. The other a pop idol in forensic drag, blinded by rage. The story's twists and the committed performances toy with audience sympathies as the pain threshold is pushed to the max and beyond. Instead of desensitizing, the incessant instances of torture (mostly inflicted on Choi, like some human pincushion) are framed in a way that cranks up their sensory immediacy. After the second or third go-round, you might reasonably be concerned about what's happening to your nervous system. There's a lot of rough humor, squishy special effects and elegant action choreography—not to mention disbelief gets suspended maybe 20 minutes in—but nothing finally distracts from profound questions about violence and its justifications.

It's almost a spoiler to reveal that the final few minutes cash the enormous check the previous 140-something have written. But they do. The Korean government was right. This one's gonna hurt.

[I Saw the Devil opens March 4 in limited release, from Magnolia Pictures.]

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Posted by ahillis at February 26, 2011 11:23 AM