Thursday, June 23, 2011

I Saw The Devil (2010) Review

After his fiancee(Oh San-ha) is horrifically attacked & eventually murdered by a psychopath (Choi Min-Sik) one snowy night, a secret service agent (Lee Byung-hun) with a few tips from his beloved's retired chief father, takes leave to embark on a mission of pure wrath upon the man responsible. And what we have as a result is possibly the end of the "Korean Revenge Film". Helmed with almost as much maniacal glee as the film's antagonist, South Korean genre-masher Kim Jee-Woon returns partially returns to his grit & grue roots as I Saw The Devil (Akmareul boattda) makes a go at a subgenre that perhaps never should have gone anywhere after the films of Chan-wook Park. But films such as Bong Joon-ho's spectacular MOTHER, and countless others have shown that there is indeed something that has been brewing within the South Korean consciousness that allows these films to both have the occasional deep impact, as well as resonate with so many beyond its shores. And aside from the obvious (nazis) what makes the most ideal moral pin cushion than a sleazy serial murderer, pray ask?

As Soo-hyun finally tracks down the villain (within the film's first 40 minutes, making the film seem to be working in reverse of the typical psycho thriller), and thwarts his attempts to claim another victim. The ensuing confrontation, while spectacular, ends with a twist leaving Soo-hyun able to track the suddenly-freed monster, Kyung-chul wherever he goes as well as hear his every word. Swearing that the killer's woes are merely beginning, the film in high gear takes on another element that I neglected to mention...the film is also a comedy. That's right. For those perhaps wincing at this idea must consider that director Jee-woon is no stranger to pitch-black comedy.(the criminally underseen Quiet Family was the inspiration for Takashi Miike's The Happiness Of The Katakuris. This also starred Min-Sik, whom I haven't seen this rotund since that 1998 debut for Jee-woon.) Even in the scenes prior to this game, the film is shameless in its willingness to make a shock gag. This is perhaps the film's most unexpected element considering the subject matter. Now again, even Park's films dabbled in the gallows for his films, but never to such a hyperbolic level. It becomes such a tonal tightrope act that goes for the establishment of a certain style, but it rarely works beyond the initial setup as Soo-hyun begins toying with the hapless Kyung-chul every time he attempts to prey on his instincts. At times, it only felt appropriate to call the film Cockblocker The Motion Picture, but considering international release, the title they settled on works just fine.

So in retrospect, the two mainstream H-town films I can quickly think of to compare with in regards to thematics, are the core ideas behind Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight, as well as Scorsese's rendition of Cape Fear (which is an obvious influence. Min-Sik's slicked back hair and flare for colorful shirts are a fun nod to DeNiro.). Asking the questions of how far can an ethically person go before one falls too deep into the abyss they obsessively are staring down, becoming something possibly worse than the problem that led them here. And in this equation, Soo-hyun is an interesting return performer for Jee-woon as he plays the film almost rail straight as a broken shell, an obsessed violence machine unable to come down from his despair. Even as his revenge seems to be making headway in finding the man responsible, it never becomes enough to just kill him. The game becoming almost like a drug. And with his training, gadgets, and his almost Jack Bauer-like veneer, it is almost as if Byung-hun is channeling a performance for a completely different film. Even as his at-one-time to be father-in-law, Police Squad Chief Jang (Jeon Kuk-hwan) and sister-in-law plead for Soo-hyun to stop all of this, there is clearly no end in sight for his designs. Now for a film so ready to tackle what can ostensibly be more challenging, and thought-provoking, the film opts to careen from rollercoaster bump to rollercoaster bump.

Granted, all of this is also obviously by design as his quarry in Min-sik is so unequivocally off-the-rails insane, that he in end sum is everything Soo-hyun can never be. Min-Sik, in his first major film in years embodies the beastly Kyung-chul with his expected energy and panache. He's part Max Cady, part Anton Chigurh, with the rest, pure Min-sik. The character has no qualms about who he hurts. And as the film tinkers with asking what made him this way, both Jee-woon and Min-sik go out of their way to keep us guessing, whether there is any reason there at all or not. He is a walking void of death & destruction. Even as our troubled protagonist struggles to find the one weak spot in order to generate the greatest pain from his prey, he is overlooking the obvious in ways that are meant to provoke what Jee-woon hopes to be the more rational audience.

The often common, antithetical argument intact, these revenge films reflect a sort of purging of years of unresolved strife, not to mention an unyielding hint of paranoia.

Which all would be fine, if this film seemed to know where it was headed. As things begin to heat up between our two, the film takes on a decidedly ultra-bleak comedic running gag that implies that in Jee-woon's world, Kyung-chul is far from the only sadistic murderer-type to roam the countryside. In one of the film's more truly jaw-dropping moments, this is established in no uncertain terms, and returns to this well soon after for a wildly unnecessary narrative cul-de-sac in an already drawn out second act. While all of this is beautifully executed by Jee-woon, and his crew, the film continually wants to not only have its cake and eat it, it wants the whole darn shop with it. By the finale, everything seems all too exhausted for any kind of satisfactory resolution. Perhaps this was intended, but it really feels like that second act really took the momentum out before any kind of home stretch. So we have a film that essentially blows its wad far too early, and leaves one ready to be done with these films. It really is time to move on.

                               Jee-woon, now considered an internationally recognized filmmaker of considerable talent, and almost hot off the success of his Raiders Of The Lost Ark meets The Man With No Name saga, The Good The Bad The Weird is now in a position to pretty much make any movie he wishes it seems.(my personal favorite still being A Tale Of Two Sisters) And the idea that THIS was the film he had in mind may only make one think of just how rough that previous shoot, and post period was. Because it's pretty clear from this film that a volcano of rage had been lying dormant for sometime, just itching for the moment to blow. It's the only way one can reconcile with what we have here. And before one imagines that I checked out with the film, or am ready to dismiss this as a completely sadistic misfire, I would like to remind folks that not too long ago I gave favorable reviews to several truly dark French horror films in the past. In fact, I occasionally enjoy a good endurance test. Nothing wrong with a good, ferocious gut-check once in a while. And while I Saw The Devil flirts with some of humanity's worst attributes to mixed results, it is still a technical triumph. Few films today feel as new as South Korea's, and Jee-woon's sandbox is a truly beauful sandbox- even if the box is littered with viscera & troubling ideas.

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