I kill you dead
Maybe the best thing about Kim Jee-woon's I Saw the Devil (2010) is that the director definitely does not want to play it safe. He swaggers to the plate and swings for the fences; he bellows defiance at the gods of cinema and saunters across all the bases, daring them to strike him down.
He falls flat on his face several times while sauntering, but you have to like his bravado.
Possibly the picture's best sequence is the opening: girl in a brokedown car, calling for a tow truck. Man offers help; she refuses, calls her boyfriend. Kim cuts to the boyfriend and we watch from his end as he talks to her. Then--he looks nervously around to see if anyone's listening--he starts singing to her. Cheesy, moving, brilliant touch that; you're laughing and tearing up at the same time.
With this tender moment served, Director Kim ( and killer) swoops in for the kill. Harrowing moment of blood and plastic wrapping. Then the jaw-dropper: she begs him to let her go. Why? Because.
Did I say funny and moving earlier? This time it's worse, with no recourse or relief in sight.
The movie doesn't hit quite as hard afterward, but it has its moments--mostly found in the escalating cat-and-mouse game between the serial killer Kyung chul (played with lusty relish by Choi min-sik) and top secret agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun) who happens to be--talk about bad luck--the murdered girl's fiance.
Soo-hyeon is no ordinary seeker of revenge; no, he has to mete out as much suffering as his girlfriend endured, perhaps more. He tracks Kyung chul down, chokes him unconscious, smashes his wrist, then lets him go with an envelope full of money. Kyung chul walks away, befuddled; when he finds another victim (the nurse who treated him for his injuries) Soo-hyeon again swoops down; this time inflicting worse injuries; Kyung chul limps away more helpless than before.
Interesting concept, something Park Chan Wook might have thought of if he hadn't moved on from his Vengeance trilogy. I thought Park's revenge scenarios were too involved, too far-fetched, but Kim makes Park look like a plodding realist--a secret agent? Really? Kim Soo-hyeon's violence is outrageous and unlikely, even for a genre known for its outrageousness; one remembers bits like a tracking and surveillance capsule (how can the capsule monitor audio when it's traveling down the alimentary canal?), or Kim Soo-hyeon's super-human speed and precise timing (he's faster than a man with a knife, faster even than a man with a gun).
What are the odds that Kyung chul would pick Soo-hyeon's girlfriend for a victim? And later, the odds that Kyung chul would in turn be picked up by a serial-killing duo, and that a knife fight would ensue (superbly shot and edited, but totally ludicrous in concept)? How can a serial killer with the on-the-job training of a bus driver acquire the skills to track down a family's address, faster than Kim Soo-hyeon can drive through highways? Kim Jee-won flaunts the absurdity of the whole thing, but there's a point when even the flaunting stops being effective, when improbability piled upon improbability starts looking like carelessness, and you sit back, arms crossed, wondering if the director will ever manage to square everything away (he doesn't).
The one most persuasive effect Kim Jee-won wields to great effect is Choi min-sik as Kyung chul. Choi comes off at first like a repulsive animal, but when Soo-hyeon starts tormenting him he acquires the persistent likeability of a shambling, slobbering clown: you start cheering him on because he takes everything Soo-hyeon dishes out and still manages to swagger. Choi wears a wet mop of straggly hair, a pair of shades, and a loud t-shirt; immediately you recognize yet another of the director's inspirations: Martin' Scorsese's Cape Fear (1991) with Choi as a Korean Max Cady, charismatic and sleazy at the same time.
One wishes Kim had taken less inspiration from Park Chan Wook and his Vengeance trilogy and more from another Korean filmmaker and film: Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder (1990). The two couldn't be more different: where Devil is baroque and cartoonish, Memories is elegant and elegiac; where Devil is complicated to the point of ludicrousness, Memories casually lets go of the plot threads--the murders are, in effect, a mystery that lingers in your mind long after the credits roll.
Where in Devil the pursuer is a black-clad secret agent who works alone and can do no tactical wrong (at least in the beginning), in Memories the pursuers are police officers who are all too human, who offer contradictory theories and who sometimes massage the evidence to fit their theoretical framework. Where Devil feels as if it takes place outside of Korean political history, Memories tells the story of a specific time and place, when South Korea was a police state, when quelling riots took priority over protecting lives, and when torturing suspects into admitting guilt was standard operational policy.
Call me prejudiced, or conventional, or a fuddy-duddy moralist--whatever you like; the contrast just snaps everything into perspective for me. I Saw the Devil, for all its humor and somewhat inventiveness, remains a self-indulgent exercise in sadism, while Memories of Murder is the great serial-killer film of Korean cinema.
First published in Businessworld, 6.16.11