Monday, August 8, 2011
When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche
That's the quote that kept running through my mind as I watched the profoundly disturbing, deeply stirring Korean film I Saw The Devil. Those words sum up exactly what the film was about. What makes a monster? And do you have to become a monster to do battle with one?
Directed by Jee-woon Kim (A Tale of Two Sisters) and starring two brilliant actors in Choi Min-sik (Oldboy) and Lee Byung-hun (The Good, The Bad, The Weird), I Saw The Devil is the story of one man's angry descent into that abyss in order to do battle with a man already entrenched there. These are two men who excel at what they do: one, a good man and a secret agent of the country, and the other man, an experienced serial killer with practically no fear. It takes an innocent woman's death to slam their worlds together and begin the downward spiral.
A young woman awaits help in her car one snowy night when she's approached by Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik), who offers to help her. She refuses politely, but is brutally attacked anyway. Kyung-chul takes her to his lair, where he systematically murders and dismembers her. Her fiance, Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), is devastated by her death and swears to hunt down the man responsible. After viciously cutting a path through suspects, he finds clues that point directly at Kyung-chul, and the game, as they say, is afoot. Soo-hyun thwarts Kyung-chul's attempt to make a young schoolgirl his next victim, beating the living hell out of him, then forcing him to swallow a transmitter. In a compelling and strange journey, Kyung-chul sets out to get his wounds treated. By "compelling and strange," I mean his odd and eventually violent taxi ride with two other insane gentlemen. He threatens the doctor who treats him and begins assaulting the nurse, only to be interrupted by Soo-hyun, who leaves him with a severed Achilles tendon.
Kyung-chul holes up with a buddy from his circle of psychotic murderers, a cannibal who lives with his complicit girlfriend. Soo-hyun follows his prey to the house, where he engages in another insane battle with not one but all three nutjobs in the house. All three are taken to the hospital, and it is here that Soo-hyun's overconfidence and rage - coupled with his underestimation of Kyung-chul's own craftiness - cause his own downward spiral. The people around Soo-hyun, his friends and colleagues and his fiancee's grieving family, all warn him against pursuing Kyung-chul for reasons other than apprehending him. And it is here in the hospital that Kyung-chul is given an opportunity to turn the tables on his vengeance-seeking hunter. The battles of wills begins in earnest here, and never lets up until the undeniably sad conclusion...a battle and conclusion you really need to see for yourself, trust me on this.
The chemistry between Choi Min-sik and Lee Byung-hun is electric and dynamic. Whether they're on-screen together or in separate scenes, their performances are like dances or a battle. They're matched up perfectly as villain and hero, and as a duo whose methods become eerily similar. Soo-hyun has looked in that abyss - a dark canyon in Kyung-chul - and it stared hard and defiant back at him.
Kyung-chul is no ordinary villain. He is relentless, remorseless, cunning, and a force of nature. And guess what? Those exact traits can be applied to Soo-hyun, who is no ordinary hero. Their motives are different, but both have become monsters. Director Jee-woon Kim leads the two in a duel for the ages, down and dirty, gritty and bloody, framed with beautiful photography. All the pieces just fit.
Two moments stick out in my mind as I write this. Two character moments that simply summed up each man. One, while Kyung-chul sits with his cannibalistic friend for dinner (during which he refuses to eat the "house special"), the friend cracks a joke about Kyung-chul, who quietly stares down his host. The friend goes from "oh, come on, I'm just kidding" to fearful for his life to tearful relief. Kyung-chul's unspoken reputation, which we already know is pretty sick, snowballs to frightening size.
The other moment belongs to Soo-hyun and it comes during the final shots of the film. When the realization hits him regarding what he has done, how far he has gone to get it done, and the prices he has paid to get it done...it's a punch in the gut to both him and the audience. His cold, expert expression finally melts and he weeps uncontrollably in the middle of a street. He knows what he's done and it's too late to go back. Far too late.
As you may guess, I highly recommend I Saw The Devil. If you have a weak stomach or have a low tolerance for cinematic brutality, you may want to steer clear. But the violence isn't gratuitous. It is an important key to the story. It is about that abyss and its question to you: "what would you do?" It is disturbing and gritty and unflinching. It is also compelling and exciting and a story very well-told.
Just be sure to remember Nietzsche's words...