Tuesday, November 30, 2010
I Saw the Devil [****]
I don't know why but the casting of two of Korea's premiere villainous actors Lee Byung-Hun and Choi Min-Sik as the respective hero and villain of Kim Ji-Woon's I Saw the Devil strikes me as utterly genius. I think it's rare for a movie to have a hero so dangerous you feel sorry for the villain, but that's exactly the case with I Saw the Devil. Don't misunderstand me, though, the villain doesn't deserve sympathy but I don't want to be on the wrong side of the line when Lee Byung-Hun's Korean Intelligence Officer with revenge on his mind is my number one adversary. Having prior experience with Lee's brand of villainy makes it easier to cut through the formalities of having the hero realize that operating outside of the law is the swiftest road to justice. All of our experience with movies tell us that's what he'll do, but all our experiences with him as an actor tell us that the bad guy(s) is(are) going to regret it.
The villain of the piece, however, is Choi Min-Sik and if ever there was a force capable of absorbing all that Byung-Hun can dish out it's him. Min-Sik has experience as a hero in Park Chan Wook's Old Boy but his hangdog, weather beaten face suggests a man who has spent his life falling short, being bad and getting back up to do it all over again. For all of his masochistic tendencies, we wonder how it is that Min-Sik can keep going. For ninety minutes of the film's one-hundred forty-five minute running time, Byung-Hun mercilessly engages Min-Sik in brutal fights and cat and mouse games and each time he emerges the victor. Min-Sik has endured more brutality than we believed to be humanly possible, but between each fight he brutalizes an innocent and seems to be completely rejuvenated. It is the chief reason that for as impossibly outmatched as Min-sik is he can't gain our sympathy even though we wonder if he'll be able to stand another punch.
When Min-Sik's character is first introduced in the film he is playing the good samaritan to a pregnant woman (we'll quickly learn the woman is the wife of our hero) who has already insisted that help is on the way. This causes her husband concern, but he figures that if he stays on the phone and comforts her it'll ease her mind and make up for the fact that he can't just skip out of work to help her. The introduction is also worth noting because Min-Sik is glimpsed only in shadows. First, we see his cold, unforgiving eyes and then his emotionless face and I'll admit that my first thought was that a mold of Min-Sik's face would make for an ideal Michael Meyers mask. Truthfully, Min-Sik's character more closely resembles the kind of character you'd end up with if Michael Meyers and Scorpio from Dirty Harry had a baby.
If Min-Sik is analogous to an unstoppable force of evil like Meyers then Lee Byung-Hun is the Wrath of God. This brings us to an interesting point. I Saw the Devil is clearly a reference to the most vile form of evil one can imagine, so why bring God into this? First, the old testament is all about vengeance. Second, if you go to enough sermons in a year you'll hear more than your fair share of talk about smiting enemies and, believe me, Byung-Hun is one of the best smiters of Ye Olde Motherfuckers that the movies have to offer. Plus, God is the Devil's opposite. I'm not treading new ground here, but I'm getting to the point that our natural inclinations towards vengeance cause us, at times, to see the Devil within ourselves more clearly than we see God.
It also works on another level because the hero and villain stand for different things but mirror each other in a lot of ways. Both have broken families; the hero's shattered by the villain obviously, but in his crusade the hero is certainly working on estranging his would be in-laws (at one point they ask him to stop, but he's not finished yet because he wants to make the guy suffer). The villain has a mother who can't stop loving and wanting to help her son, but his father thinks he's good for nothing. They both get a real charge from preying upon those that are weaker than them and in that way, Min-Sik and Byung-Hun are most alike. In their initial confrontation Min-Sik displays a level of arrogance that awakens the worst in Byung-Hun, but I would be loathe to say whether or not Byung-Hun's dogged pursuit constitutes an arrogance on his part or just righteous fury. A better question might be whether or not those two things are the same.
For all of the myriad ways that the film's title can be interpreted and how it informs the movie's content I like to imagine that the title, though never spoken in the film, is derived from the following scene: when Byung-hun confront his first suspect he chokes him with a phone cord, ties him to a chair, interrogates him then causes great trauma to his genitals. The suspect, utterly terrified, turns himself in to the police for all of his (unrelated) crimes and when they interrogate him he mumbles and the film doesn't bother to translate it. I like to imagine this guy told them that he saw the devil. But it works on a lot of levels because it's rich and layered and can encapsulate a whole mess of feelings and events. The title, for the first time in a long time, is not to be taken lightly.
I highly recommend this movie not only for it's expert cat and mouse games, but the stark, bloody poetry of the ending and the way it holds a mirror up to us so we can see the toll that revenge takes on us. Make no mistake the movie is too bold and bloody to preach, but it recognizes that we're only human.