who broke your balls?
soo-hyeon (lee byung-hun) works for the national intelligence service, but he's taking two weeks off work. two weeks to pursue the killer of his fiance, whose butchered remains were found dumped in a river. his fiance's father (jeon gook-hwan) is the chief of police and is able to supply him with the police records of the four main suspects in the case. soo-hyeon sets out to find out who is guilty, with kyung-chul (choi min-sik) quickly being outed as the murderer. and so soo-hyeon's revenge begins...
kim jee-woon is, perhaps, my favourite korean director, who has been responsible for some absolutely cracking films over the past decade and a bit. he is a director who seems to effortlessly slide from film to film and genre to genre, creating something rather special as he goes. unquestionably, all of kim's films are technically and aesthetically exemplary, whilst being filled with great performances from solid casts. 'i saw the devil' is, like his other work, a technical and aesthetic triumph.
one of the characteristics of kim's films, in my opinion, is the feeling of just how well crafted they are. lighting design, sets, props, costume and locations almost always look amazing when captured with a fine cinematographic sensibility. this is another film which is very, very beautiful to look at. the two leads are also, expectedly, strong. lee byung-hun is fantastically glacial but, perhaps, at his best when he shows the little cracks that are there. choi min-sik, on the other hand, is one big crack: thankfully, however, he is talented enough to communicate the character's real lunacy with a calmness that makes him all the more unsettling. the film is also populated with a fun and interesting selection of small roles, almost all of whom seem to make an impression, no matter how fleeting their appearances may be.
and, kim, as director and adapter of the screenplay, has to take credit for a lot of the good in the film. however, i guess that must mean that he has to take credit for the bad too...
at its most basic level, 'i saw the devil' is a meditation on revenge, its futility and how he who hunts the monster becomes monstrous. to be honest, i'm struggling to see anything beyond this most basic level. i also think that another korean director made a trilogy of films which covered the same ground with equal aesthetic brilliance, but with a lot more depth. actually, i think 'depth' is the wrong word; how about composure and... err... shit, i'm totally struggling here.
let me put it like this: there's a scene at the beginning of the film where, following on from the discovery of a carrier bag filled with body parts, the police descend on a stretch of river underneath a bridge. they're there, in the hours of darkness, with the press buzzing around in a ghoulish frenzy: it is like a circus. then, the victim's father turns up, her fiance too, they hear the police shouting about how they've found the head, it gets boxed, a state of delirium is reached, there's panic, people run, people fall, the head rolls out of the box and the music is loud and brash, it's telling you exactly what you should be experiencing at this moment in time. it is an extremely crass piece of cinema.
unfortunately, the film is littered with these moments. part of me wants to believe that kim is playing with his audience; milking the melodrama and throwing logic, logistics and likelihood out of the window. i don't think this is the case, though. what kim wants is to give you the awful experience of what these feelings of revenge, acts of extreme violence and the emotional turmoil associated with his subject matter. and, i'd be lying if i said that he didn't accomplish this with some frequency; there's some incredibly crafted scenes in the film and also moments which are purely awful and you are left in no doubt about how you should be responding. however, the narrative tools which kim uses to take you along this arc, like the hunt for the head, are executed in a way which jars you, they're at odds with their surrounds - they seem crass and, dare i say, stupid.
i'm not saying that 'i saw the devil' is rubbish, but there's a lot of rubbish in there. some scenes are done so badly, i really lent serious thought to whether or not he was attempting to parody brainless examples of such genre films. maybe i'm just saying that i thought it was poor and i expected something much better. i watched the 'theatrical' version on sunday and i managed an hour of the 'international' version this evening, before i got so bored with it that i had to stop. actually, i think i am saying that it is shit: perhaps kim has lost it and, the fact that his performers and stylisation are so amazing, that no one seems to have realised?
the dvd is £8.41 from play.com, unless you want the more expensive korean version, which is $34.99 from k2dvd.com