Thursday, 22 September 2011

Film Review | I Saw The Devil, dir. Jee-woon Kim

There's so much of everything these days: so many horror films, so many fantasy novels, so many first-person shooters... whatever your particular poison, there are in this day and age so very many candidates competing for your attention that you have to have some system to tell the wheat apart from the chaff.

Me? I tend to follow the talent. It's not enough that I Saw The Devil is a horror film from Korea, for instance. I've seen plenty of those, and more of them bad than good, in truth. But that it's the latest from Jee-woon Kim, the writer/director who brought us A Tale of Two Sisters and A Bittersweet Life? Well. That would have made it as good as a gimme... if I'd only known.

Somehow, however, I'd managed to completely blank on that really rather salient information, so it wasn't till the closing titles of I Saw The Devil rolled - fully two and a half hours after I'd selected a random movie from the international cinema shelf - that I realised what I'd been watching... and why I was so comprehensively blown away by it.

I Saw The Devil is without question the most effective horror film I've seen since The Human Centipede, and for all that film's faults, we can, I hope, agree that it had its merits, too: a truly ghastly premise, of course, but also a daring, unflinching vision, some unforgettable visual effects, and an atmosphere thick throughout with tension, terror, and pure, undiluted disgust. I Saw The Devil has all that and - brace yourselves, I'm going to say it - more.

From its first shot - the chronicle of a long drive along a desolate road blanketed in snow, from the POV of psycho-killer Kyung-chul, played to unnerving perfection by Min-sik Choi - through to its last, which I won't spoil, Jee-woon Kim's latest (perhaps even his greatest) is a beautiful, brutal thing; truly, madly, deeply masterful in its execution, and set apart from its radical conception on out. I Saw The Devil is in short a revenge thriller with a key differential, in that the avenger becomes as much a monster, in short order, as the monster he seeks vengeance from.

Our hero, such as he is: Jee-woon Kim's usual co-conspirator, the stalwart Byung-hun Lee as Kim Soo-hyeon, a married special forces fellow whose pregnant wife is slaughtered in I Saw The Devil's stark, not to mention shocking, cold open. Kim Soo-hyeon has little time for grief thereafter. He takes two weeks' worth of compassionate leave from the agency, and devotes every second of that time to the hunt for his wife's sadistic killer.

To my surprise, not even an hour into I Saw The Devil, Kim Soo-hyeon had both found and confronted the remorseless monster Kyung-chul... then, as if even murder were too good a fate for him, set him free, with - I shit you not - a wad of cash to pay his way. So begins a cruel and unusual (but justified insofar as any cold-blooded crime is) game of catch and release: Kim Soo-hyeon will track and trap Kyung-chul like the animal he is, until he judges this horrifying specimen of humanity has suffered as much or more than he imagines the love his life must have done.

I Saw The Devil is not a film for the faint-hearted, or anyone whose stomach churns at the thought of graphic depictions of all the evils men do: bloodshed, bullying, butchery; rape and molestation and murder. I Saw The Devil is not a film about any of these things, strictly speaking, but nor does it shy away from them, as so many movies do. Jee-woon Kim's camera rarely cuts away at the excruciating moment the horror tradition in cinema has led us to expect, if it does at all. Rather, it lingers... that we may see, and feel, the nerve-shredding extent of the awfulness unfolded in the name of vengeance, in Kim Soo-hyeon's case, or unfettered desire, per Kyung-chul's.

Both Byung-hun Lee and Min-sik Choi, as protagonist and antagonist, bring to their respective roles such complete commitment as to ably bear the terrible burden demanded of each; and each bears it in a manner steadfast to their character. Kyung-chul is manic, animated and utterly uninhibited. Kim Soo-hyeon, meanwhile, is stoic, spent but determined... an immovable force set against an unstoppable object. Which, one wonders, will give way first?

Beautifully shot, despite the horrors of what Jee-woon Kim is actually shooting, and so singularly faithful to its twisted vision as to leave the viewer reeling for most of its 150 minute run-time, I Saw The Devil is a rare steak of a film, comprehensively cooked, yes, but blue and oozing on the plate, sickeningly soft in the mouth, and metallic with the tang of still-warm blood as it coats your throat. It might very well make you sick. Equally, I Saw The Devil might be among the best meals you ever had.

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