I hold my hands up and openly admit that I know very little of Asian culture. I did however know that recently in the last five years increasing numbers of Korean filmmakers have explored the subject of gang crime. The Korean government has started to embrace a more liberal policy around types of expression allowed in the movies and so its audience are considerably more desensitized and expect to see what we may in British culture consider a more graphic and bloody iconography in their films in particular of the thriller genre.
Bearing in mind that a film that the BBFC would ban can be certified significantly lower by the Korea Media Rating Board I knew partially what was to expect from Kim Ji-woon’s 2010 release of ‘I saw the Devil’. Rated appropriate for an 18 audience following a recut of seven scenes from the KMRB due to its violent content I hoped that there would be more to the film than the shock factor alone.
Written by Park Hoon-jung and starring award-winning Asian actors Lee Byung-hun and Choi Min-sik , the film premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival but had only a limited cinema release. The 144 minute film follows the strangely likeable Soo- hyun (who is conveniently a secret agent) in his quest to avenge the grisly murder of his fiancée Joo – yeon , daughter of a retired police chief. This promise to his beloved tortures him deeply in turn blurring the lines between good and bad. The film as a whole reminded me of a famous quote:
‘An eye for an eye and the whole world goes blind.’- Ghandi
I will do everything I can to make him feel the pain that he put you through – Soo-hyun
The immaculate wordplay and direction throughout is often humourous whilst preserving the heavy impact of every single scene. The voyeurism of Soo’s Jekyll and Hyde transformation leaves you with an uncomfortable feeling. Do we pity him for what his grief has turned him into or is he just as much of a monster too?
“He can’t become a monster to fight a monster”
As expected Kim more often than not utilises the shock factor to leave its audiences speechless. No holds are barred with graphic scenes of cannibalism , close up gore and constant violence throughout. You can’t help but wince at some of the particularly malicious acts shown which seem to get increasingly bloody as the film goes on. A man attacks two others in a taxi with a knife. He stabs both numerous times and blood pours from their wounds from all directions you didn’t even know possible .You think the first few minutes are graphic but then you realise the producers obviously invested in much greater quantities of fake blood than you had hoped.
I admit for the beginning of the film I felt that the excessive use of torture porn would take away from the characterisation and development of the relationships between the characters and in some ways I do believe it did . However the script somehow had the ability to add some kind of surreal beauty to the story in the things that an ordinary man would do for the girl that he loves.
‘I saw the Devil’ is probably not recommended for any feminists out there. Although probably a reflection of Kyung-chul’s heartless character the repeated use of the word Bitch by several male characters to name any female character on-screen did slowly grate on me. Excluding his obvious arch-enemy Soo all of his victims are young women and teenage girls all of which are shown to be pathetic and not able to fight back for themselves. However the thing that got to me the most was that the grim scenes of nudity and rape which just seemed to show women as nothing more than a sexual object and adding very little to the plot. Equally it could be said that the film demonstrated males to be violent, domineering and misogynistic. Or perhaps I think too much.
Mowgs score on the other hand is somewhat beautiful and caught my attention almost immediately. From a critical view I felt it added a great deal to the atmosphere whilst not distracting any attention from the delicately crafted visuals which to be honest, deserved all the credit they can get. During the most extreme scenes the music was even in perfect sync with my heartbeat.
The film was definitely memorable and some scenes are disturbingly difficult to un-see. I also felt that excluding the cringe-worthy faux pas of characters talking to themselves as a uneeded attempt to narrate that the script was very engaging and unique in its realism and the direction unconditionally hypnotic. However for me some things just didn’t make sense , for instance Kyungs annoyingly invisible nature , a continuity error regarding a cigarette burn to the eye socket and relatively majorly if there was an investigation into the case then why was the family left so much in the blue?
The thing is that the action moves so fast that you don’t really have time to notice these things. There is something intriguing about every single one of the characters that make it a worthwhile film and it is so clever in its craft that the man lying in the corner with blood squirting out his head doesn’t put you off. You just want to see if and how all of this chaos will end and you cannot help but feel for the characters ; there human sides and perhaps even partly the monster taking over inside of them.