“The count’s frozen face was petrified and ashen and the blood still poured down the parallel cuts. His eyes bulged wide, full of horror and pain. It was glorious. If you like that kind of thing.” –William Goldman, The Princess Bride
If you like that kind of thing, then I Saw the Devil really might be your feel-good movie of 2011. Like the Oldboy trilogy it was clearly influenced by, this is a revenge story as only Asian cinema can do it these days: uncompromisingly brutal, undeniably artistic, and superlatively original. When a serial killer (Choi Min-sik, who I know from Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, and The Quiet Family) murders the fiancée of a special agent (Lee Byung-hun, from Three…Extremes, and GI Joe Rise of the Cobra), the agent hunts him down and tortures him for the express purpose of “making him feel the same pain she did.”
Let me make one thing clear up front, if that tease does not—this is not a film for the faint of heart. The violence never seems gratuitously torturous, as for example Hostel’s most intense scenes did, but it is graphic and extreme. It is not unwatchably violent if you watch hyper-real horror movies already, especially from the Asian scene, but if you don’t, be very sure that you are ready for scenes which the director admits are aimed at making you question what’s wrong with yourself, for watching them. On the flip side, I don’t want to oversell the violence, because I went in with that comment in mind expecting basically 20-minute torture scenes, and the movie is not that, either. It walks the fine line between gruesome and ridiculous, then, never going out of the realm of the plausible in its violence and therefore made more terrible for the moments of restraint.
The film is also, inevitably, a rumination on the nature and meaning of revenge. It is a topic that remains ever-popular in human storytelling, and why not? The desire for vengeance is rooted deep in our emotional center. As a woman, watching this movie, I found the agent’s attitude completely sympathetic; I want someone to love me enough to track down and torture any man who did to me what was done to the agent’s fiancée. I am not one of those forgiveness types and never have been; who knows, perhaps when I am older I will appreciate movies like Clint Violence-is-bad-mkay Eastwood now makes, but for right now I revel in this approach.
There is definitely an element of the law of retaliation here. The agent plays cat and mouse with the killer, expressly letting him go in order to prolong the psychological torment. This leads to the killer reciprocating and going after the agent. It’s a clean illustration of the messy cycle of revenge, that someone new will be drawn into the cycle with every exchange so that it perpetuates. It also leads to the question of whether true revenge—by which I mean, meting out the precise amount of pain and suffering inflicted—is worth the collateral damage it can cause. Certainly any number of lives would have been spared if the agent had simply killed the killer when he had the chance the first time. It’s a bit of a reverse Batman in The Dark Knight, with the same outcome: Batman won’t drop the Joker off the building when he can because it would be immoral, but by not doing so he allows the Joker to kill everyone who dies in the second half of that movie. Same outcome here, different reason: the agent is not done with the killer when he lets him go, and so those later deaths must be on his conscience for not shooting him when he had the chance.
But he does not, because he wants the killer to know his death, to understand it, to see it coming and to fear it.
This need to prolong the process, I think, points to the heart of what revenge is for. The agent enjoys the game. He enjoys focusing on the serial killer, on beating him at his game, on inflicting pain, on fantasizing about the next step in his process. The reason is not because it is fun, but because long as he is doing that, he does not have to face his own grief. He can set aside his loss and focus on the here and now; her death is not final until her killer is eliminated, but the moment he is we see the agent’s mask of calm rage shatter and the unbearable loss he has suffered overwhelm him.
And that is a reaction we can all relate to. It is easier to feel anger than anguish, and even if revenge cannot relieve us of our loss it can buy extra time before that loss must be faced and made real.
I want to talk about the cultural contexts here; this is a Korean movie, and I am an American. I freely acknowledge that I might have missed cultural undertones in my interpretation of this movie.
(SPOILERS) I think the clearest example is the very end, and the method by which the killer is finally executed. He has boasted to the agent that he does not know the meaning of pain or fear, that the agent could do his worst to torture him and he would still feel nothing, no regret or remorse for what he had done. Now, me, I would have called his bluff and done my best Inquisition confessor impression, but the agent simply walks away, leaving in place a mechanism which will kill the man after a time delay. I wondered if this was defeat for the agent…until a taxi with the killer’s family shows up. I had to think about this overnight to come to the conclusion that the family element was, in fact, the true revenge. The killer might not know pain or remorse, but he would know shame, and there would be no greater shame for him than in being revealed to his family as a monster. There is also the darker side of what that revelation would do to his family—it would inflict a pain on them, as well, which might also be a horrifying thought to the killer. (END SPOILERS)
That family/shame culture was not something I grasped right away or left the theater thinking about; I left feeling satisfied with the movie’s violence and creativity but a little underwhelmed by the end. Until the next morning, when I tried to put it into a cultural context other than my own.
Perhaps I got it wrong. Perhaps I misinterpreted the entire movie.
But what I can say with certainty, is that from my American perspective this movie is an A+. It does not feel anywhere near its 144-minute running time, and it has enough twists and turnabouts to keep you guessing. Not quite as beautiful cinematographically as Lady Vengeance (although still very well filmed, just not quite as stylistic) but more extreme in its violence, and its equal in storytelling, characterization, and emotional satiation.
Big thanks to Chalmette Movies in New Orleans for carrying this kind of film.
Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.