Part of MKC's Revenge Week (July 8-14, 2013).
By David Bell
The revenge genre has long worked to explore (some might claim exploit) this duality – that is, the horror and seduction of violence. Of late, South Korean cinema has developed into one of revenge cinema’s most dynamic producers. With films like Jung Ji-woo’s Happy End (1999), Kim Ki-duk’s The Coast Guard (2002), Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy (2002, 2003, 2005), Kim Jee-woon’s A Bittersweet Life (2005), Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser (2008), Jang Cheol-so’s Bedevilled (2010) and Jo Geun-hyun’s 26 Years (2012) – to name but a few – all coming within the last 15 years, no national cinema seems capable of competing with South Korea’s contemporary dominance over the genre. While some of those listed above clearly signpost themselves as violent revenge movies, others are more ambiguously brutal and might encourage dismay at their inclusion on such a list. ‘What makes a revenge film?’ is certainly not the simplest of questions.
Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil (2010) presents no such confusion as to its roots and intentions. Rather, the film’s prominence among South Korea’s canon of revenge cinema is as important as it is equally questionable. Indeed, among the likes of Park’s Vengeance Trilogy, Jung’s Happy End and Kim’s own A Bittersweet Life, I Saw the Devil sits well; if a bit too comfortably. With the lead roles in the hands of heavyweights Lee Byung-hun and Choi Min-sik, a semiotic unity of sorts even appears at work – the cinematic chalice of South Korean revenge appears safely in familiar hands. Yet what so separates I Saw the Devil from the triumphs of this family is the unprecedented strictness with which it sticks to that trope of vengeance, the glaring absence of much thematic insight and the unsparing violence through which it proceeds, relentlessly enthralled, to communicate that absence. Suffice to say, I Saw the Devil presents a useful point from where to observe the various approaches to violence at work within the cinema of revenge.
“Revenge is for the movies”, warns the sister of murdered Ju-yeon to Lee’s retributive Soo-hyun, and seldom does I Saw the Devil diverge from that mantra. From the outset, the film lets us know exactly what we’re in for. A gorgeous shot shows a driver, whose face remains hidden from their angel-winged mirror, prowling the country roads on a snowy night. Regularly in South Korean cinema police appear inept or absent and, tellingly, the only other vehicle we see is that of a squad car driving the opposite direction. Whatever comes next, then, is unlikely to be interrupted. Our driver happens upon a lone woman sitting in a car awaiting a tow truck to fix her flat tire. On the phone with her fiancé, who we learn works among a high level security outfit (Korea’s National Intelligence Security), a brief moment of intimacy is shared before she is beaten in the car by Kyung-chul (Choi), that passing driver who ominously brought us to the scene. Later in his home, as she pleads for both her life and that of her unborn child, he butchers her.
For a film that runs in at almost 140 minutes, this is its most efficient and well-paced scene. There is no room for ambiguity in what we have seen; nor is there for what will follow. Within 11 minutes we have our victim, villain and soon-to-be vengeful protagonist. What follows is a tale so steeped in violence that viewers can be forgiven for remembering little else beyond the chopped limbs, sliced tendons, bashed heads and rolling decapitations. That almost 90 seconds of cuts were enforced before it could be released in South Korean cinemas evinces how bloody a picture this truly is. Arguably, these moments act as the film’s main attraction and, in turn, the narrative sags under their weight. Plodding in a manner devoid of subtlety, it appears strung together primarily to substantiate these various peaks in violence; to, in a sense, make them watchable.
From the outset, I Saw the Devil goes to great lengths to situate the viewer in relation to its violence. Existing at polar opposite ends of the social spectrum, the film’s hero and villain point to an overt class distinction at work in this positioning. Soo-hyun, who goes through the film with never a hair out of place and dresses impeccably, even when dishing out beatings, is an upstanding protector of citizens. On exiting a room in a hotel while on his final call to his fiancé, he has to bat away juniors falling over themselves to rise from their chairs at his entrance into the room. With a swanky high-rise Seoul apartment, this clean-spoken young man on the verge of a happy family is the beacon of honesty we are encouraged to identify with and follow into the depths of hellish violence.
In contrast, his counterpart, Kyung-chul, scrapes around like a vile fiend sniffing among the debris. With unkempt hair and filthy clothes this foul-mouthed creature resides among the anonymous country roads, at a remove from society, on a farm where he mutilates the vulnerable women who cross his path. In constant demand of recognition from a society unforthcoming, he takes company with cannibals who, though they act as customers for the limbs he severs, still treat him with the same disdain. Throughout the film, his constant outbursts stem from moments where he feels slighted, where he deems others withholding from him the social recognition a man his age typically receives in Korea. Having abandoned his only son to the care of his aging parents there is not a slice of redemption in his characterisation, nor is there much hint at what brought him to such a degenerate state.
Rather, much as Soo-hyun appears effortlessly angelic as the beautiful and humbly elite man of Seoul, Kyung-chul appears natural in his raggedly demonic form. His failure to integrate into society and family signals, particularly in Korea, his aberration, and as our wronged man of society steps out of his civilised ways (conveniently his work as a secret agent has him trained in all skills necessary for such a task) and into the depraved realm of the beast this takes on a problematically simplistic and justifiable mode. The horrendous murder of a woman journeying back from a visit to an orphanage (an angel of high snatched from the depths, no less), is no easier to celebrate avenged than when it is by a figure like Soo-hyun against a monster like Kyung-chul.
Of course, class structures have long been used to position viewers throughout revenge cinema. Similar to Soo-hyun’s passage into a world not of his own, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) has Dustin Hoffman’s yuppie astrophysicist David stepping out of his middle-class norms to quell an attack from the local (again) animalistic men of his wife’s lawless rural hometown. Only, where I Saw the Devil seeks to maintain its men of violence within opposing class distinctions, Peckinpah turns those very distinctions inside out. David’s rampage is brutal and is timely following the provocatively ambiguous rape of his wife Amy (Susan George) by the gang’s leader, her ex-boyfriend. Alarmingly, Peckinpah leaves David unaware of the rape; thus, instead of highlighting his triumph over a barbarous gang, David’s own middle-class propensity for wanton violence creeps eerily into question. In contrast, with I Saw the Devil viewers are presented and positioned by stark class constructions which the film disingenuously – belonging, as it does, to a genre that frequently thrives on such play and manipulation – fails to address.
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