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Wednesday, April 11, 2012 

Film review: I Saw The Devil.

(Major spoilers ahead.)

For a good month or so, I've been going back over Mark Kermode's film reviews for 5 Live as posted up on Youtube. One of Kermode's great strengths as a critic is that he understands genre cinema and so is often far more forgiving of certain films, such as Basic Instinct 2, than other critics would ever be. This can also be a weakness, as it's also led him to give good reviews to the last few Richard Curtis films, all of which have been utter dreck regardless of their positioning as rom-coms or in the shape of The Boat That Rocked, rose-tinted nostalgia with sinister undertones.

One of my less attractive traits is that I'm someone who buys DVDs/Blu-rays, leaves them in an ever mounting pile and then every six months or so goes on a binge in an attempt to catch up. One of those that's been sitting there waiting for what must be almost a year was I Saw The Devil, the latest film by Jee-won Kim, who previously gave us the ghost horror A Tale of Two Sisters and the wonderfully over-the-top yet still lyrical A Bittersweet Life. Watching Kermode's review, who wants to like it but can't as it is just so grisly and its politics are so vacuous, and knowing that it's rare that I disagree with him, I thought I might as well make up my own mind.

In short, Kermode was right. I Saw The Devil does seem to be Jee-won Kim's attempt to one-up his contemporary Chan-wook Park, whose Vengeance trilogy, including Oldboy, did so much to bring South Korean cinema to mainstream international attention. As others have noted, the key word in the title also isn't so much Devil as it is Saw, after the US torture franchise that has thankfully now expired. Where Park's films were violent, as they had to be, he never once overstepped the mark into gratuity or into targeting the set-pieces towards gore hounds; every specific act of brutality had a point, every twist was choreographed perfectly, and it was always vital to the denouement. ISTD instead often takes its cues from Saw and other gross-out splatter fests where the plot is secondary to the intricacies of death sequences.

The film opens in an almost pastiche of horror conventions: Joo-yeon, played by San-ha Oh, is stuck in her car on a snowy night having got a puncture. On the phone to her fiancée, Kim Soo-hyeon, played by Byung-hun Lee, a stranger in a school people carrier pulls up and offers to help. Kim, who we can tell is a secret agent of some kind as he checks the status of his mission by talking into the sleeve of his shirt, advises her to wait for the pick-up truck. You can probably guess what happens next. The killer we soon learn is Kyung-chul, played by Min-sik Choi, Oldboy himself, and who also appeared in the last film of the Vengeance trilogy as a serial child killer. Having begged for her life on the grounds that she's pregnant, what follows seems to be a pitch black riff on Seven: a little boy finds her ear near to a river, a forensic crew is called in, and they quickly discover her severed head in the water. The rain pouring down, and with seemingly no attempt made to preserve evidence, the head is placed in a box, only for the man carrying it to trip while surrounded by paparazzi, camera crews and other police, conveniently just as Kim arrives.

Plenty of people will have already lost patience by this point. Is this meant to be taken seriously? Would the police ever allow the press anywhere near where a body search is taking place? Would they really just pick the head up almost straight away without taking photos of it in the water or intensely searching close by for other body parts? Would they not try to preserve the scene as best they could, despite the head being found in the water? Or is this all just a connivance, a further setting up of what's to come? In one respect, it certainly is that: like with all vigilante films, it shows the apparent incompetence of the police, something that continues throughout, as Kim is almost always one step ahead of them. What it also does is undermine the film's cohesion and theme: is it making a serious point, as it otherwise seems to be, or is it all one long joke on the viewer for doing so?

Promising his dead fiancée that he will not rest until he has made her killer go through the same pain that she did, Kim sets out on his mission of vengeance. Provided with a capsule containing a GPS transmitter and a microphone, Kim's plan is simple: he will find the killer, knock him unconscious, make him ingest the device and then let him go, only to then track him, capture him again, torture him some more and repeat the cycle, all of this happening under the very nose of the police. As you will have figured, things do not go to plan. Crucially, rather than being terrified and cowed by this experience, Kyung has never felt so alive: the game of cat and mouse invigorates him far more than his previous rapes and murders ever did. And in the process, Kim has become just as monstrous as Kyung himself, as no less a figure than the police chief tells the father of Joo-yeon in an effort to get Kim to put an end to the caper.

Indeed, so single-minded has Kim become that he has no apparent feelings for any of the innocents caught up in the madness he started. When he first finds Kyung he's just about to rape a schoolgirl he's captured; rather than comfort her or get her safe once he's knocked out Kyung he seemingly does nothing to help. Having been set free for the first time, Kyung kills two other men who pick him up, also seemingly murderers, but it's not clear whether Lee realises this or not when he follows the trail of carnage. Lastly, having failed to intervene quickly enough, he barges in on Kyung forcing a nurse to fellate him; after slicing Kyung's Achilles tendon, he asks the nurse for help in "fixing" her attacker up.

As a whole, women in the film are either victims, or to be ignored and abused: Lee ignores the plea of Joo-yeon's sister to stop what he's doing, while there's a deeply problematic scene where Kyung, having met up with an old friend who it seems is a cannibal as well as a murderer, rapes the woman who's staying with him, only for her to start genuinely enjoying it half-way through. I can only imagine that it's got through the BBFC uncut for the reason that she is willingly there and so complicit in the murders her friend is carrying out, putting into reasonable doubt her resistance in the first place.

If all this is making the film sound awful and contemptible, as it hopefully is, the problem is that when viewed as a whole it's not. What saves it from being truly abominable is that Kim's direction as shown in his previous films is first-rate: the cinematography is glorious, the lighting superb and every scene, regardless of how grim it is, is pulled off with a style that differentiates it completely from the so-called torture-porn sub-genre of the second half of the noughties. Just as crucial is Min-sik Choi's performance as Kyung, as he goes from exuding sheer menace at the beginning to pure terrifying mania towards the end. Not quite as convincing is Byung-hun Lee, whose character you just simply can't believe would be so numb to all that's going on around him as Lee portrays him as.

Nonetheless, the fact that it is this well made can't save it entirely. Just as the remakes of the 70s/80s horror films have in most cases improved immensely on the production values of the originals doesn't make them better; it in fact does the opposite. A deeply troubling film like Last House on the Left is as powerful as it is because the acting isn't convincing and because it has such flaws as the completely misjudged slapstick moments. It was a movie made on a shoestring by first-time film-makers who didn't properly know what they were doing but which said something about the time they were living in.

I Saw The Devil does none of these things. Its message, if indeed there really is one, that violence only leads to more violence or that if you go after a monster you have to be careful not to become one yourself has been done numerous times before, and better than it has here, not least in the Vengeance trilogy. The final sequence, which is all but an aping of Saw even if it ties with the scene at the beginning, just reminds you that despite what that series became, the first two films were decent enough that you could overlook their failings. What's more, they were honest about what they were doing; with ISTD, you simply can't tell what Jee-won Kim was truly aspiring towards. Whatever it was, it falls far short.

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