In addition to the Oscar-related flicks I've seen in the past couple of weeks, I've also taken the time to watch a handful of Korean films. I'll mention two briefly, and spend most of my efforts on the third.
First, the good...
The Man from Nowhere (아저씨)2010
This one feels like a cross between Leon: The Professional and Man on Fire and to me that's mostly a good thing. Won Bin (who recently played the mentally-challenged accused in Mother) plays a pawn shop owner with a past, who gets involved when his crack-head neighbor's daughter (and apparently, his only friend) gets kidnapped by criminals who reveal deeper and deeper layers of sinister intentions. Well-choreographed gun play and tension surrounding characters that are easy to care about and cheer for. This was the top earning South Korean film of last year. Won Bin is cool and, for the ladies (or in-that-way-inclined gentlemen), is one sexy cat. Also, he's a believable action hero. Sandy - this movie is for you.
The Loveliest Week of My Life / All for Love (내 생애 가장 아름다운 일주일)2005
This is one of those ensemble rom/coms where multiple stories collide with varying degrees of success. Consider this one of a few attempts at a "Korean Love Actually", and a fairly enjoyable one at that. Most successful for me was a story about a bravado-spouting cop (Hwang Jeong-min from A Man who Was Superman) who gets romantically entangled with a cute doctor and reveals some surprises about his background. Most confusing for me was a story about a young nun who struggles with her feelings for a failing K-pop star, and ends-up sharing a hospital room with him after she attempts to take her own life, and he succumbs to the physiological affects of depression. All of it however was interesting and fun, if far from aiming for realism. I have a feeling that in English this would have been achingly cloying and saccharine, but the Korean subtitles make it charming as all hell as far as I'm concerned.
I Saw the Devil (악마를 보았다) 2010
I remember badly wanting to see this film last summer. Truly, I will see anything with Choi Min-Sik, who played the title character in Oldboy back in 2003 - still the most memorable South Korean film I've seen. I was warned however that I Saw the Devil was being banned in its home country and having its release delayed again and again over controversy surrounding the violence in the film. How bad could it be though, right? I mean, in a time when "torture porn" movies like Hostel: Part 3 and Saw XXIII are making enough box office to demand yet another sequel, what could be so objectionable about this?
Turns out - a lot. The story involves Kim Soo-Hyeon (from The Good, The Bad, & The Weird), a secret service agent who opens the movie chatting to his beautiful young fiance who happens to be stuck in a snowstorm on a moonlit rural road outside of Seoul. A school mini-bus approaches her car, and a hooded man offers her a ride. Soo-hyeon advises her over the phone to just wait for the tow-truck. The man, rebuked, wanders back to his mini-bus as the two lovers continue their talk. When the conversation ends, the girl is surprised to see that the van hasn't left. It's brake lights are still on. More surprising is the fact that the hooded man is now standing outside the passenger door, ready to swing a lead pipe.
In movies as graphic and disturbing as The Silence of the Lambs, there is still employed a sense of taste and respect. Buffalo Bill might be wearing his woman suit, but we never see him "harvesting his materials". We see him abduct his prey with force, and it IS unsettling, but we don't ever see (in this viewer's opinion) any violence that isn't justified in terms of advancing the story or defining who the characters are, ie: we need to know that Hannibal Lechter is capable of ripping another man's face off, but we don't need to see the entire visceral act in question to feel its impact. Of course, this is the difference between Johnathan Demme and Brett Ratner. Even Quentin Tarantino understands this (and he even employs it from time to time).
In I Saw The Devil, the camera doesn't cut-away from this first murder at the side of the road. Instead, it follows each blow to the head, the body being dragged to the mini-bus, leaving a wide red road in the snow, back to the killer's hide-away, where her naked and near-death body is splayed out on hooks and... well, I need not go on.
I will describe a following scene however where pieces of the body are dicovered in a nearby river hours later: news cameras follow the distraught Soo-Hyeon and the dead girl's father (who happens to be the police chief) down to the river where a head is discovered, boxed, brought up to shore, and then dropped by the tripping forensic specialist where it bounces around the grass for all to see. I think back to Se7en at this moment, where the director of I Saw the Devil might have made the choice to do the same with Gwyneth's blond locks rolling toward the high tension wires. One wonders here if the film is now moving toward parody. It's horrific, yes - but so over-the-top that as viewers, we're not sure how to feel.
The story progresses with the grieving Soo-Hyeon given 2 weeks vacation to "get over" the death of his fiance. 2 weeks, we are told, is all he will need to "do what must be done". Soo-Hyeon has promised his dead fiance that he will avenge her death and hunt down the 4 major suspects who the police have been following for some time, determine her killer, and "make him suffer as she did". With the help of his friends in the service, he is given a tracking device and a GPS reader. 10 minutes of film time later, after brutalizing the first 3 suspects, he finds his fiance's true killer: Kyeong-cheol (Choi Min-sik from Oldboy) just as the latter is poised to rape a teenage girl. Soo-Hyeon beats the piss out of Kyeong-cheol, and is about to finish him off with a large rock, when he calms his rage enough to remember his mission. He forces the killer to swallow the tracking device and leaves. No mention of where the bound and violated school girl went off to, by the way.
What follows is about an hour and a half of vigilante agent following the killer, beating him senseless and delivering all manner of injuries (remember that ankle tendon slicing scene from Pet Semetary? This is much worse), and then dropping him off at a clinic where the tormented killer can get bandaged up and ready for the next round.
So, is this just a revenge movie? No. Kyeong-cheol is found and beaten repeatedly through the film, but just before he gets his (admittedly well-deserved) ass-kicking, he has, in a fit of new rage, started to "act-out" - perhaps knowing that he's going to get caught anyway, so he may as well wreak more havoc in the process. Each time, before Soo-hyeon lays the beats, Kyeong-chul is already half-way toward raping or killing someone - half the time, he succeeds before the agent can intervene.
In one particularly repulsive scene, Kyeong-cheol comes-across a "friend" (colleague?) who has, with the help of his drugged-up female accomplice, broken into a rural mansion and is in the process of slowly offing the family members in the kitchen. Kyeong-cheol has a dinner with his friend, and then - when said friend heads downstairs to get ready for another killing, Kyeong-cheol graphically and violently rapes the girlfriend in the kitchen. To top this all off, the director makes the choice to show us that the girl, who fought him off at first, is actually starting to enjoy it. Anyone "titillated" yet? I ask because this seems to be the film's raison d'etre.
Similar lack of directorial restraint is shown shortly after when the killer gets into a shared cab on a country road, notices a knife-wielding thief in the back seat, and in short time dispatches both driver and passenger in a literal multi-knife bloodbath as the camera swoops around the taxi's interior, barely able to film the scene for all of the fountains of arterial gore coming at its lens. At times like this, I find myself wondering: does someone, somewhere, consider this to be "Art"?
Who is this movie for? It's certainly not for me. It stars two of Korea's most highly respected and visible stars and in the end, it amounts to no more than murder and rape porn. There must be moments in the making of a movie like this where a director has to make an important choice: "Do I need to simply show that the pursued killer has an unsuspecting girl in a compromising position, or should I given enough screen time to the killer to explore this uncompromising position, with full-frontal quivering nudity and crimson highlights?"
I think that somewhere during the conception of this project, script-writers were thinking that they might want to explore the often-trod story dynamic of the "man who has to become a monster in order to catch a monster", but this thing just falls apart, or (more accurately) descends into smut. The director wants us to be horrified, but by what - the acts on the screen, or the way in which the film makers chose to frame them? I Saw the Devil forcibly side-steps any thought-provoking social comment that story as a basic structure might have been capable of making. I have seen more jarring violence elsewhere, and elsewhere it had a purpose. Here, the result is offensive garbage. When you show a killer and rapist de-robing a terrified young woman the first time, queasy as it may be, you can argue for its value as a piece of plot or character development. When you show it a second time, with the same consequences or lack thereof, it's called rape pornography. I know that "smut" and "garbage" make me sound like prudish conservative grandfather, but watch this movie and tell me I'm wrong. Or, you can disagree and get excited for the release of Eli Roth's next "project", or spend your time wondering what Jigsaw is up to these days.
There is nothing to take away from this viewing experience aside from the revulsion you feel at having subjected yourself to it. Se7en, Reservior Dogs, Natural Born Killers, Straw Dogs, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, or even The Exorcist are all examples of films that employ gruesome violence and repulsive acts for greater purpose - even if that purpose is simply to tell a better story. I Saw the Devil is not one of those films.