Part of MKC's Revenge Week (July 8-14, 2013).
By David Bell
Released the same year, Jang’s Bedevilled offers a more delicate approach. Hae-won, an unsympathetic Seoul bank-worker, is forced to take time off after aggressive behaviour towards a colleague and visits her childhood friend Bok-nam on the fictional island of Moo-do. Appalled by the mannerisms and cleanliness of the farming islanders, she passively bears witness to their horrific treatment of Bok-nam and murder, and denial thereof to (again) useless police, of Bok-nam’s daughter. Frustratingly, Jang persistently plays with our expectation to see Hae-won emerge from her clean middle-class apathy and intervene in Bok-nam’s suffering under the abject, conventionally Othered, islanders. But just as she previously failed to act after witnessing Bok-nam’s gang rape as a teenager by those same men as youths, Hae-won, indifferent, arranges her return to Seoul. In turn, Bok-nam’s manic massacre of the islanders takes on a decidedly, and cleverly achieved, tone of despair. Had Hae-won intervened, as her need for redemption combined with the wretched islanders’ need of punishment appeared to signpost she would, the ensuing carnage might have taken a more traditionally cathartic mode – one more in keeping with the violence performed in I Saw the Devil.
Instead, the fatal straw that breaks Bok-nam is Hae-won’s own incapability to account for her role as witness to abuse; consequently, her escape from Bok-nam’s all-enveloping spree of vengeance feels troublingly unjust. The film’s unsettling coda has Hae-won atoning for an earlier act of cowardice and moving on with her life as if, fairytale-like, she has escaped the island all the better for her experience, knowing now the power and responsibility that comes with bearing witness. Where Bedevilled usurps its revenge roots, denying us any pleasure in its promised violence and offering instead a meditation on its complicit witness, Straw Dogs moves to deliver on its promise only to hold us to account for our own act of witnessing. In having us endure the lengthy rape of Amy, Peckinpah generates an audience desire, which we anticipate will be satisfied, to see it avenged. That it is done so by a man ignorant of the crime brings the extent of the violent retribution, and our excited pleasure in it, uncomfortably to light. Does the fact we know of the rape justify our joy in seeing it fantastically avenged by her unknowing husband?
Significant to the violence typical of revenge cinema is its structural placement within the film’s narrative. Where Straw Dogs builds pressure-cooker like tension towards David’s conclusive eruption, in both Bedevilled and Happy End, violent actions of vengeance emerge in the final acts following dramatic instances of abuse (the death of a child; the neglect of a baby) that prove the last straw for characters (the child’s mother; the baby’s father) who have, up to that point, seemed remarkably capable of enduring the unsavoury conditions of their desperate lives. Consequently, their respective outbursts (the mother’s slaughter of an island populace; the father’s calculated murder of his wife) carry also the weight of their previous sufferings. In I Saw the Devil, the opposite seems the case, with Soo-hyun’s suffering quickly established only to be eschewed in place of a more thriller-like focus on the techniques and mechanics of his strategy for vengeance – a strategy echoed by the film’s similarly dogged pursuit of violent spectacle at the expense of all logic or nuance.
Such exhibitions of violence within revenge cinema, and, moreover, our relation to them as viewers, are examined in Gasper Noé’s Irréversible (2002) where a chronologically-reversed opening shocks by having us witness a most savage act of violence without any prior knowledge of the crime evidently being avenged. Where I Saw the Devil moves quickly to enact its crime and kick-start its cat-and-mouse saga of retributive mania, Irréversible dwells not on the instant of vengeance but, controversially, on the agonising crime – the heinous rape of Alex, played by Monica Bellucci – with which it proceeds, through a 9-minute single take, to assault the viewer. Here we also realise the rapist will escape unpunished, for that man whose head was smashed open in the film’s opening was, in fact, not he, but another. Initially, while Irréversible might appear the more distressingly violent of the two films, in essence, its contextual positioning of the viewer powerlessly at odds to its violence deliberately denies any of the problematically cathartic violence of retribution with which I Saw the Devil so exhausts both itself and its audience.
That is not to say there is nothing to celebrate in I Saw the Devil. Both Lee and Choi, particularly the later, excel in their roles with Lee’s sombrely determined Soo-hyun functioning as much needed relief from the film’s enraptured showcasing of Choi’s seething, at times despicably humourous, Kyung-chul. As is always the case with Kim Jee-woon, I Saw the Devil is a work of magnificent technical prowess with each scene – could they only be left to stand alone – expertly crafted and beautifully shot. In one particularly bravura scene, Kyung-chul meets two likeminded predators prowling the country roads under the guise of a taxi journey. The camera’s exhilarating single-take revolution around the car during the ensuring flurry of stabbing brims with ingenuity, and easily holds its own beside Choi’s famous disposal of a corridor of goons as Dae-su in Oldboy. Only, where Dae-su’s frantic onslaught signalled his growth into a warrior unstoppable in his lust for answers, Kyung-chul’s frenzy seems irrelevantly tacked-on. Above all, it serves to highlight the film’s excessive dealings in brilliantly orchestrated but, essentially, aimless violence.
Additionally, this habitual aestheticism of the film’s abundant spectacles of violence plays havoc with its narrative and tonal momentum for they appear too often, too extreme, and so the question of ‘if’ Soo-hyun will ultimately take vengeance by killing Kyung-chul never seems salient; rather, it is simply a matter of ‘when’ and ‘how’. In numerous scenes, Kyung-chul is shown vigorously beaten, as with Soo-hyun’s repeated bashing of a baseball bat into the back of his skull, to an extent no human could plausibly walk away from; only, seemingly invincible, he does, and does again, at nausea. This failure to set a gauge on the intensity and frequency of violence within the first two lengthy acts exhausts our waning investment in its exhibition leaving for a tired and inevitable finale, with the long-promised payoff beheading of Kyung-chul at the hands of his unknowing family – who thus appear previously brought into the story simply to enable this final scene of cunning bloodshed – striking a ridiculously pantomime note. Frankly, Soo-hyun’s final tears of sorrow at the end smack tactlessly of a feigned moral posturing at the heart of I Saw the Devil – a film that is less a meditation on vengeance, and more a carnival of violence.
Undoubtedly, then, revenge cinema has had a highly reflexive relationship to its various dealings with screen violence. The very nature of the genre commands that. How violent spectacle is presented through techniques of narrative structure and characterisation plays a fundamental role in determining our relationship as viewers to that violence. Indeed, this is part of what makes the revenge genre so exciting – its open incorporation and devious manipulation of us, the audience. If there is to be a future to South Korea’s dominance over the genre, and I for one hope there is, then I Saw the Devil deserves its place among the country’s revenge classics for marking out where not to go, and how not to go there.
Read Part I
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