Saturday, March 26, 2011

Movie Musings: I Saw The Devil (Akmareul boattda)

Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun) and Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik)
are working through some serious issues together.

This is a 2010 Korean film by one of my favorite directors Kim Ji-woon, who also directed excellent films like A Bittersweet Life, A Tale of Two Sisters, and The Good, The Bad, and The Weird. I'd heard of this film but hadn't looked very closely into it. Imagine my excitement when I read it was showing locally. I managed to catch it on the last day it was playing at Lumiere Theater here in SF.

The first thing you need to know is this is one of the most violent films I've ever seen. They're marketing it as a horror film but it's not. I understand why they went this route because it's the only way to prepare the audience the extreme level of graphic violence. The word "extreme" is used far too often but it's completely appropriate here.

No, this isn't a horror film, rather it's a revenge tale. A secret agent's wife is dismembered and murdered by a serial killer. Sometimes we hear people in movies (or in real life) say that death is too good for someone. This film takes that idea and pushes it past any sane person's limits.

The film stars two of my favorite Korean actors: Lee Byung-hun is Kim Soo-hyun, our avenging secret agent, and Choi Min-sik is Jang Kyung-chul, our serial killer. Lee's Soo-hyun is stoic and efficient and seems to get even more so as time goes on. He's keeping it all in, everything he feels, and he willingly walks on his chosen path of an eye for an eye. Choi's Kyung-chul is a monster. His insanity and blood lust are almost casual and are so much a part of him that it appears to be as natural as breathing. Both actors are great in their roles but Choi is unbelievable. It's my opinion that Choi is South Korea's best actor and we really see it here. This character might be up there as one of the greatest villains to grace the screen.

These two characters really face off with each other. Neither of them refuse to yield so you have these two immovable forces hurtling at each other like two trains.


There's a lot of violence and gore in this film and it's relentless, very graphic, and sickening. There's very little gun violence. Choi Min-sik is probably best known for his amazing role in Oldboy. Oldboy is violent as well but nothing like this. Choi's use of a hammer during the brilliant hallway sequence in Oldboy has become an iconic image, of sorts. He uses many hammers, knives, and other blunt and sharp objects during this film and uses them over and over. People in the audience kept reacting out loud to the violence: gasping, groaning, mumbling things like "do they have to show that?" I didn't see anybody leave but I was sitting closest to the screen. I wouldn't be surprised if a couple of people walked out.

Of course, this film is beautifully shot and scored. The sound is...both sickening and amazing. We would expect nothing less from our esteemed director. Mr. Kim was required to make certain cuts otherwise it would have been difficult to show this film in Korea. I'm looking forward to a director's cut with all the accompanying extras this film will surely have.


So I saw this film last Thursday night at Lumiere Theater and it clocked in at 144 minutes. I decided to see it again at Opera Plaza Cinemas on Van Ness on Sunday night and they cut about 20 minutes from the film! What the FUCK? I can't think of any reason why they did that. They cut an entire scene, the scene in the doctor's office. This scene is important because it's here you begin to understand what Soo-hyun is doing because it's more than just find the bad guy and then kill him. Also, it provides the explanation for why Kyung-chul is limping for the rest of the film. I've looked around for some kind of explanation for the shorter running time but haven't found one. I guess I should be glad I got to see the long version.


I really loved this film though I can't recommend it to anyone because of the violence. There are no heroes in this movie; it's not cool or awesome in any way. It's certainly not satisfying the way some revenge movies are. This is a film about destruction but it also has a kind of purity about it because it's gloriously uncompromising: The camera will not look away. It's supposed to be about what happens when someone goes down that black, bloody road known as revenge but this moral question becomes irrelevant after a while. This film is great because everyone knows what happens at the end of such an endeavor and the characters and director allow us to go there with them without trying to shield us from that awful place. Magnificent.


Susan Doran said...

Wonderful review! I was so interested in your mention of 2 different versions, so googled to see what's been written about it.

Just yesterday someone posted a bit about the Korean cut vs the International cut different versions. Not a huge amount of analysis, but what's there is interesting, particularly...

"Kim Jee-woon used different takes, or angles to cover the exact same scene. Or sometimes, the scene order has been slightly modified, like when Kim Soo-hyeon reaches the cannibal’s house, it appears right after the sex scene in the korean version, but in the international cut, it’s been added after Kyung-Chul’s smoking time.

"So, it would appear the main difference between these 2 versions is the pacing of this hardcore rollercoaster. Both have equal violent scenes, yet the international cut looks rougher while the korean cut looks more sick. Narratively speaking, characters stay the same, one version just seems to go straight to the point while the other tries to emphasize this whirlwind of violence.

"You should know the ending song used during the final shot is different in each version. Somehow, this is maybe the most important change as it directly affects the mood of this conclusion. A slow song in both cases, but with a slightly different feeling. Check by yourself!"

Mock Turtle said...

Thanks for your comment! And thanks so much for posting the link. I made a comment on the linked post explaining this 20 plus minute cut but I don't know if it went through. I hope so.

I'm going to contact the theater to find out what's up with the 20 minute cut. I'll report my findings here.

The poster is right about International vs. Korean versions of films. I've noticed them myself in a few films I've seen but the version I saw which cut out the doctor's office sequence goes way beyond that.

Thanks for checking it out.