Once upon a time, Hank Williams sang "I Saw the Light". Today, filmmaker Jee-woon Kim gives us "I Saw the Devil". As a quick (and admittedly unlikely) exercise in compare and contrast, this shift from light to dark, from God to the devil, could be considered indicative of how far the global popular culture has fallen. But when one stops to consider, as it's been pointed out elsewhere in detailing the torrid life of the great country singer (by singer/songwriter Paul Thorn, who said the following), Hank Williams was in the darkness when he sang "I Saw the Light".
An alcoholic and chronic screw-up, Williams had to experience that palpable darkness of life before he could honestly recognize the light. In his new torture/revenge epic film, South Korean horror icon Jee-woon's dares to drag the viewer on a no-holds-barred trip through some of the most deranged darkness committed to film in recent time. He competently forces our gaze upon acts of obsession and hate that I would not wish upon my worst enemies. Coming out of the theater, yes, the light was refreshingly brighter than usual - even on the dismal-weathered day that it was. I was rattled and thankful to be done watching "I Saw the Devil". And so the question stands, what light do we see from this experience, and is it possibly worth it?
The never-explained evocation of "the Devil" in the title of this film brings up a sort of black and white, good against evil moral struggle. On the surface of the story, yes, there is a hero and villain (Byung-hun Lee and Mik-sik Choi, respectively). A psychotic cab driver named Kyung-Chul (his raw, matter-of-fact sickness gives Travis Bickle a run for his money) makes a habit of capturing, murdering, and dismembering attractive young women - and that's just part of it. After the pregnant wife of Kim Soo-hyeon, a highly trained South Korean secret agent, becomes his first victim in the story, the hunter becomes the hunted. But, as the twisted tale unfolds, this sense of deceptively clear morality becomes quickly knotted, both within the soul of the main character, and within the viewer's guts.
"I Saw the Devil" is as much of a brutal endurance test as it is a well-made film. It has a no-nonsense drive that fuels every bloody second. It is gripping, horrific, graphic, and oh my gosh is it long - at two and a half hours, and two false conclusions, Jee-woon may've made the "Heat" of the torture horror sub-genre.
Actually, that said, it's interesting to note that although Jee-woon Kim is known for his work in horror, and "I Saw the Devil" thematically fits the mold of torture horror (I much prefer the term "torture horror" over the more widely used but terribly misleading "torture porn"), I can't sign off on this as a bona-fide horror film in the same way I'd consider the work of Eli Roth or the "Saw" series horror. Yes, the brutality is comparable if not exceeding those examples, but the fact that so much of the film revolves around a protagonist's revenge that we can't help but sympathize with - at least at first - the dread factor is replaced with a sort of continuous moral see-saw, fixing our attention upon inhuman actions that we at once root for and are fundamentally repulsed by.
The long running time only reinforces this aspect, as again and again, our hero pursues the sadistic killer, catching him in the act, savagely dismembers and terrorizes him, then releases him so that they can eventually repeat this process. This agonizing catch/release villain torture drives Kim Soo-hyeon to the edge of sanity and reason even as it inches toward an inevitable endgame. A viewer of weaker (or even normal) constitution may wonder if that endgame will ever arrive. Be assured that it does, and when it does, it does nothing to alleviate the unsettling nature of the overall film.
While it's true that "I Saw the Devil" is essentially a series of intense how-much-can-you-take set pieces, it does thankfully take a moment from time to time to question the moral nature of revenge. The soul-consuming actions of Kim Soo-hyeon are directly identified as such through dialogue, as well as in round-about ways through vague Judeo-Christian iconography, such as angel wings, crosses, and crucifixes which adorn the locations and wardrobe of key characters (including the demented killer himself).
The notion of a film that criticizes sadistic actions by presenting them in an upfront manner - thus in way becoming what it's criticizing - is not new. And while I can't pretend to have fully reconciled the moral conundrum this sort of art presents, I think I can safely say that if you haven't made some sort of peace with the notion, this is the wrong movie for you. It goes without saying that this is not for the squeamish.
It's been said before, but we live in violent times, and for all the often valid criticism Eli Roth and his fellow torture-meisters have generated, I am all but certain that the best of their work (yes, I believe there is some social relevance to the "Hostel" films, even if they are undeniably indulgent) will stand the test of time as examples of where our culture was at the time of their creation.
Here in the U.S., not all that much has changed from the Bush era to the current reign of Obama, but the fact that we really just wish it would has forced that brand of horror off of Western screens, and back into a remake-fueled place of nebulousness and non-identity. It is a shift from outrage to denial brought on by outrage-fatigue. Our meta-consciousness may be getting a break from the way brutal human-on-human horror films force our collective gaze, but, dare I say it, the vital art of the horror film may be suffering a crisis of denial. Hitting American screens a good three years too late to cash in on the now dormant torture horror trend, it's kind of a wonder that "I Saw the Devil" is getting any kind of domestic theatrical run at all. As difficult as it is, it may be more relevant than ten "Piranha 3-D"s combined. As an expertly crafted gory revenge thriller/horror film, "I Saw the Devil" offers a difficult light of truth on our troubled times.
Now, with all of that said, excuse me while I cue up my Hank Williams record...
- Jim Tudor