Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Strange Films I've Seen: I SAW THE DEVIL

I purposefully held off on writing my Top Ten Heaviest Films I've Ever Seen because I hadn't seen Kim Ji-woon's notably brutal I Saw the Devil. I'd heard the buzz in festival circuits, this 2.5 hour joyride into hell, a punishing revenge tale pairing chisel-featured special agent Lee Byung-hun (aka "The Bad" from Kim's The Good, the Bad, the Weird, though his portrayal of the unnerved director in Park Chan-wook's short Cut prepared me somewhat for his role here) against a wild-eyed and -maned sociopath played of course by Choi Min-sik. Anyone who's seen Park's Oldboy (and alternatively Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) knows what he's capable of. Well he combines the ripped juggernaut in Oldboy and the sicko in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and one-ups it. Or ten-ups it: he's an absolute MONSTER here.

The plot in brief: Choi plays one of the cruelest killers I've seen beyond stock-horror slasher films: a marauding ball of deviant energy, picking off his targeted young women like a predator in the wild, beating them near to death and then butchering them. We get flashes of his fetishes: he keeps their underwear, shoes and accessories in locked drawers. He apparently rapes them. But beyond that, he's a relentless, reasonless, bloodthirsty blur. We don't learn how many women he's killed. But we DO learn, like two minutes in, how he kills, attacking a pretty young woman with a hammer, dragging her bleeding body away in the snow, then, as she pleads for her life, telling him she's pregnant, cutting her up. She's the new fiancé of Lee, plus the daughter of a retired detective (Chun Kook-haun), so in essence Choi just picked off a HIGHLY prized target. Lee gets the suspects list off Chun, then goes rogue, torturing everyone on it until he finds Choi. Their initial face-off in a greenhouse, w/ Choi berserking at stock-still Lee, was one of those scenes I'd anticipated from the trailer. It's also the real turning point for Lee, b/c though he'd already maimed two suspects before Choi, he didn't have that dark gleam in his eyes as now, finding his dead fiancé's ring on Choi's property, KNOWING this lurching ogre hurling himself across the room, wielding a sickle, is the murder. His target. He overpowers the maniac (though Choi's all raw power, Lee's athletic and possibly military-trained — we get a preemption of this when he like parkours up to an earlier suspect's flat), beats him up, breaks his wrist and implants him with a mic-amplified homing device. Lee steps back, pays for Choi's medical bills, then toys with him. Or, rather: beat him up again, pays the bills, tracks him. Repeat.

Only thing: no matter how much sick satisfaction Lee gains, no matter what solace he gets for losing his fiancé to this wicked monster, he can't go any further. Meaning: he can't get her back. Nor will he ever feel "better" or "redeemed". His quest to slow-torture Choi before finally dispatching them feels futile and dangerous from the get-go. And while it's amusing to see Choi's bewilderment as Lee shows up out of nowhere, foiling his plans in favor of another beat-down, it's clear Choi is going to keep doing what he does (wreaking havoc), no matter how debilitating his injuries, while Lee loses more and more of himself each time they meet. We sense this after Lee cuts a phone-call short w/ Chun, whose grown weary of the cat-and-mouse game, realizing it won't bring his daughter back, and asks Lee to call off the hunt. Plus, Chun's daughter (and younger sister to Lee's fiancé) gets on the phone, begging him to stop pursuing Choi. She fears for her own safety, always looking over her shoulder as if the sociopath is right there. No, Lee's got business to attend to, i.e. beating up Choi. He tunes in, listening to the bastard berating a woman to remove her clothes. This is like hours after he received his initial beat-down and a broken wrist! He's back to his prim and sick self — after stabbing a cab driver and his apparent homicidal passenger to death SIMULTANEOUSLY, all whilst speeding down a road — ready to rape and possibly kill a buttoned-up young nurse. So even after Lee beats him up again, severing one of Choi's Achilles tendons in one of many eye-watering scenes, the monster shows no signs of stopping, even as he hobbles about in various stages of dress.

Eventually Choi learns of the tracking device within him. He extracts it, speaks directly to Lee (who learns here and only here that his murdered fiancé was bearing his child), then goes on a final rampage. Guess who he goes after? Lee, who'd had the monster in his sights, in close range so many times, loses him and loses even more. They're due another inevitable showdown but the die was cast long ago. As Choi says it: he's got nothing to fear and nothing to lose. But Lee HAS lost, and nothing he can do to the devil before him can reverse that.

Lucky for you sickos, I Saw the Devil opens at IFC Center on March 4, and even sooner for you savvy festival-goers, as it's included in this year's Film Comment Selects at Lincoln Center.

All photos courtesy Magnet Releasing