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I Saw the Devil (Akmareul boattda)

dir: Kim Ji-woon
[img_assist|nid=1379|title=Just pray that he doesn't look back|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=408|height=605]
Jeez, do I need a shot and a shower after that. Make that three shots and two showers to get the taste of death out of my mouth and the stench of this film off my skin.

This is a revenge flick, usually a genre known for being full of sweetness and light, made even uglier and darker by a director committed to making the audience feel as harried, exhausted and sick to the stomach as the main characters.

And good goddamn is it a long film. Even had this flick been 45 minutes shorter it still would have felt like the longest flick since Gone with the Wind crossed with Holocaust epic Shoah.

You wouldn’t know it, but South Korea seems to be, based on this flick, infested with serial killers. They’re everywhere. And, even better, they all know each other. I tell you what, this entire scenario is only even vaguely plausible if South Korea is actually located right next to Ciudad Juarez, in Mexico, because they’re getting away with murder on a daily basis in both locations.

Okay, so the Korean peninsula is nowhere near there, but all the same, these fuckers put Hannibal Lecter, Henry Lee Lucas and Colonel Gaddafi to shame.

A woman, stranded by dint of defective car, is raped and murdered by a deeply horrible man, who then dismembers her and disposes of her earthly remains. Not that the guy would care, seeing as he is a complete psychopath, but the woman’s husband, Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), works for the National Intelligence Service, and is some kind of superspy type. Not only that, but the girl’s father was a police chief. Not only that… I think you get the idea.

Soo-hyun intends to find the vile motherfucker (played by Choi Min-sik, best known for playing the main character in Old Boy) in order to get revenge for his murdered lady love. And he intends to do so, in the old parlance, with extreme prejudice.

The problem is, the flick wants to tell us the audience something that we already know: that in a decent society, regular folks can’t be going around getting their vengeance on, because it’s bad and it never works out properly and people’s feelings get hurt and so on. Even if they’ve got secret spy super skills, even if the scumbags they’re after are irredeemably evil, it doesn’t work out when people take the law into their own hands. The aggrieved become just as monstrous as the murderers and yadda yadda yadda.

The actual problem is, apart from taking two and a half hours to tell this story, that nothing in this flick acts as an argument that Soo-hyun shouldn’t get revenge on this scumbag. In fact, to my ignorant Western non-Korean eyes, had Soo-hyun just done what he ‘should’ have done, the end result would have been far more morally justifiable. Vigilante justice and the ethics thereof don’t apply when your inability to get the job done results in dozens more people being raped and killed.

Seriously, I can make the argument. I can probably do it more succinctly than this flick does, even being the wordy prick that I am. Inaction, in this case the non-killing of a mad dog, is far worse a crime than unlawfully killing him would have been. Maybe that’s what the director was going for. I sincerely doubt it.

This isn’t a mystery flick at all. Within the first hour, Soo-hyun has already figured out and hunted down the vicious blank-eyed monster responsible, and found his lair, and found tangible evidence linking Kyung-chul to his fiance’s murder. He’s also already beaten the fuck out of him. It would have been a blessedly short flick if this had been the case. Instead, he sets about attacking him, then letting him go so he can torment him later.

It might be implausible to consider that someone could so easily track someone across South Korea. Technology helps Soo-hyun out. It might be implausible to consider that, since every time he attacks Kyung-chul, he maims him in some debilitating way that would cripple most people and leave them incapable of going on a raping and murdering rampage for months, but the film has a hefty duration to fulfil, so Kyung-chul keeps chugging along and committing a surreal progression of crimes with broken arms and severed Achilles tendons akimbo. What a trooper.

It might be implausible, as in, unbelievable, that everywhere Kyung-chul goes, he bumps into other murderers and serial killers by accident. It might actually cheapen the drama to a ridiculous extreme that the flick does so, whether it’s because the story is trying to say that it’s an evil, dark world that we live in, or that it’s just a Serial Killer’s Really Bad Big Day Out and we’re supposed to laugh at the dark irony of it all. But nothing about this film, which is darker than dark matter, made me want to laugh. It’s far too unsettling when it’s got its blood up, and far too irritating when the plot holes mount up.

It’s absurd, which doesn’t completely detract from how engaging the narrative may be. The violence is very extreme, probably to a Saw (which is cartoonish) or Hostel (which is not) level, and the few and fleeting action scenes where Soo-hyun starts fighting like the superspy that he is either against Kyung-chul or any of the other people he ends up having to take out, it’s brutal. But there are, even worse, too many scenes of chained up or threatened women begging for mercy, begging not to be raped, begging not to be killed, and serial killers getting angry with their victims for being so churlish, for me to be comfortable with what’s going on.

This flick, despite the non-credible way Kyung-chul spontaneously figures out how to turn the tables on Soo-hyun by locating and threatening his dead wife’s remaining family, posits not the Super Genius theory of Serial Killerdom, but the They’re Just Kill Crazy Psychopaths Who are Messy and Ugly but Capable of Self-Preservation Until They no Longer Give a Damn. So we are granted many a scene where the brutishly stupid Kyung-chul grunts, sweats, smokes messily with a foul expression on his face in between his general raping, murdering and angry shouting at people unfortunate enough to cross his path.

It’s not just that we want him gone, or dead. It’s not that he deserves it, which he certainly does. It’s not that we’re frightened for Soo-hyun, who everyone thinks is becoming a monster himself. The problem is, I don’t think anyone watching this flick could really, by any point in the flick, actually think that Kyung-chul shouldn’t be put down like the dog that he is. The problems arise, and the multiple more murders and rapes occur, because Soo-hyun hasn’t yet achieved his revenge, because he doesn’t feel that a creature like Kyung-chul, who lacks emotions or the capacity for fear, has been tormented enough. And if and when it finally comes, at the cost of so many more lives, it rings hollow, utterly hollow, most of all because it’s delivered with all the subtlety of a Bond villain crossed with Sleepy Hollow. I could practically hear the director laughing “Mua-ha-ha” in the background while stroking a headless cat.

But it’s not hollow, like some screenwriter would justify, because ‘revenge’ is hollow, and no-one wins in the end, and it corrodes the soul and all that crap: It’s hollow because it ‘should’ have happened an hour earlier, and the flick never gives us credible reasons why it didn’t. There are a dozen or so times when he could have killed him where it wouldn’t even have qualified as revenge or vigilante justice by any stretch of the definition, legal or otherwise.

But that wouldn’t have suited their ill-thought-out purposes.

Choi Min-sik’s performance is probably all kinds of awesome, but it’s so horrible and so unpleasant watching him that instead of being rewarded for his performance, I felt like we, as audience members, should have been compensated for it in some way. Perhaps financially. Lee Byung-hun is pretty good at these roles, these stoic arse-kicking roles, but he mostly walked around like a sleep-walking zombie wearing a thick parka zipped up so tight his mother would be proud. He previously starred in the same director’s flick A Bittersweet Life, a flick which I loved at the time, but here the limitations of his range are jarring.

It’s a testament to how little I was engaged by the story that I spent a great deal of time in my head enumerating all the plot holes, inconsistencies and implausabilities that decreased my appreciation of what it was trying to do.

This is, even in comparison to the other flicks surging out of Korea, getting a lot of press and buzz as another example of their film industry’s burgeoning creative and stylistic output. It’s possibly a stronger flick than I’m giving it credit for. It’s true that I felt caught up in what was going on, because it’s so grim, because it’s so propulsive and totally lunatic at many times. And I did enjoy watching the protagonist beat up on the antagonist. But that wasn’t enough to make me feel at the end that it had all been worth it.

6 times if anyone else made flicks like this saying the Koreans were all serial killers it’d lead to war out of 10

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“He’s becoming a monster like one of us. He’s starting to enjoy it.” – no, he's not, he's just a very naughty boy - I Saw the Devil.

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