Revenge is a dish best served cold in the excellent I Saw The Devil (2010)
Kim Ji-woon is, for my money, the most exciting filmmaker working in action cinema today. Not because he's pushing boundaries per se, or pioneering ideas within the art form. But his brand of action cinema feels refreshingly pure, visceral and stylish; from the balletic gunfights of A Bittersweet Life (2005) to the epic revisionist stylings of The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008), he's marked himself out as a versatile and inventive filmmaker, aware that thrills are elicited from what's happening within the frame rather than shaky camerawork and choppy editing; that is an artificial action. His camera is frenzied but always feels controlled, choosing unique angles to shoot the action from, which lend the gunfights an incredible perspective.
Many US critics have been sniffy about I Saw The Devil, with the San Francisco Chronicle dubbing it "torture porn", which I think demonstrates a gross misunderstanding of the film and its moral code, or lack of one thereof. It's true that this is Ji-woon's most indulgent work - scenes of tendon chopping and cheek piercing are certainly unflinchingly graphic, and I couldn't recommend the film for viewers with a weak stomach. But within the context of the film - which has a bleak, semi-nihilist worldview - the violence is effective and disturbingly sparse. There's a terrific scene where serial killer Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi), after being badly beaten in a fight with scarred cop Kim (Byung-hun Lee) (Kyung has killed his girlfriend), is hitchhiking on the street. A car pulls up and Kyung gets in. Tension rises as it appears something is off kilter... the driver glances to the man in the back seat, who begins to draw a knife from his pocket. Kyung predicts their move and in a stunning 360° shot stabs his assailants several dozen times. The car crashes and the two men lie dead. It's revealed that they sere serial killers too, as Kyung looks in the boot of the car and finds two bodies. It's a fascinating move, for Ji-woon to portray this as a hopeless land inhabited entirely by killers - there are hardly any side characters, and even those who appear innocent are anything but. Kyung hides away at the house of a friend during the latter stages of the film... despite appearing normal he's a serial butcherer too, and has a girl chained up in his basement. To be honest, if the violence weren't unremittingly brutal it would do a disservice to the stark cityscape Ji-woon creates for his killers.
The film places an interesting dynamic on revenge movie cliché. You know how it goes: the line between good and bad becomes blurred and it's unclear whether the ethics of the good guy are any different to those of the criminal he's chasing - in the pursuit of a killer his moral compass has ducked south. But what's interesting about I Saw The Devil is the way in which it turns that dynamic into a kind of addiction; the characters engage in a series of violent games escalating in severity, but they're initiated by the 'good' guy. The chemical propulsion to kill also exists in the psyche of Kim, and Ji-woon makes a conscious decision not to have us spend any real time with him before that mindset is triggered. The question arises: how much did it take? How do you test the nature of a man, and truly know his goodness? Was Kim a nice person? Maybe Kyung-chul was a good man once - certainly the film acknowledges him as a psychopath, and a mentally unhinged individual, but there's also a sadness and a humanity to this monster; a feeling of remorse and hurt. He just wants to be getting on with his killing, and escape the loneliness that surrounds him (which isn't to say I'm excusing or exonerating him of his actions).
The real problem with the film lies in the way Ji-woon tackles these ideas. He seems more concerned with the choreography of the violence than the psychology behind it, and there's no real depth to the sadistic sport cop and killer inflict upon each other. The film plays out in large stretches of silence and certainly the emphasis is on the faces of the men, which are like blueprints for pain and suffering. I'm not saying there's no depth to the film, because the latter half makes for quite fascinating viewing. Kyung soon welcomes the conflict ("this is fun") and there's a sense of both men gaining some perverse, sadomasochism-in-extremis pleasure from their games. When Kyung embraces the dark side of his opponent he becomes obsessed with winning - it's not so much that the line between good and evil has been crossed, but the line between two evils has been redrawn. We're always on Kim's side but the question is: at what cost?
But as with all of Ji-woon's cinema the true emphasis is on action, and it's exhilarating in this picture, frequently injected with oil black humour such as the scene where a killer has his hand pinned to a table by a screwdriver - he tries to pull it out but the handle falls off. Between moments of savage violence the look painted across his face is hopelessly funny. Kyung-chul dispatches his victims in an isolated greenhouse and a fight set-piece in that location is thrillingly executed; inventive camerawork and restrained editing combine for a sequence which is genuinely nail biting. There's a kinetic energy to Ji-woon's cinema which can't really be matched and the fights in I Saw The Devil are really gripping - and a torture scene in a hospital made me wince in horror. But crucially there are consequences to the violence and the final shot is hauntingly ambiguous; revenge may have been served, but now what's left? Now that the penchant for violence has been unlocked in Kim, where can this path possibly lead him? The ending appears clearcut, but like most things in Ji-woon's revenge fantasy, it's anything but...
I Saw The Devil is released in UK cinemas on April 29th.