“I Saw the Devil” is a truly disturbing piece of celluloid. Truly. Disturbing. In double-boldface capital letters.
A little raw? Rough to the touch? You betcha. Ten minutes into the film, you’ve got Korean bad boy Choi Min-sik (“Oldboy”) in full-out serial killer mode, hosing blood off the floor of his butcher-basement in the manner of some nonchalant skipper spraying down a salmon boat. His character, Kyung-chul, might appear an innocuous school-bus driver by day… but come dusk, he’s a flesh-carving carpenter whose trade tools include knives, guillotines, and tire irons.
This is tough stuff. “I Saw the Devil” truly takes flight (or more aptly, nose-dives into hell) when Kyung-chul kills the pregnant fiancée of Dae-hoon (Lee Byung-hyun), an undercover cop. Devastated, shell-shocked, and broken, Dae-hoon turns into a gaunt husk of a man. Color drains from his once-smiling face. A man euphoric from love is turned callous, toxic, and rabid for revenge.
Kyung-chul is undeniably one sick, scary freak… but now he’s got company. Crazed by anger, Dae-hoon wants payback. But he isn’t in for a quick kill. No. He wants to extract his vengeance SLOOOOWLY… chipping away at this despicable nemesis piece by agonizing piece.
“I Saw the Devil” asks two questions: can lust for revenge create a monster from a once-decent man? Meanwhile, can a remorseless psychopath truly feel pain? Director Jee-won digs deep, slices wide, and punches hard for answers. In doing so, his film transcends geek-gore and torture-porn to become a more resonant nightmare.
“I Saw the Devil” is gorgeously filmed. Cinematographer Lee Mogae respects the art of framing… his scenes aren’t jarring, incoherent edit-fests. Using two park benches, and a pair of mourning men in the morning mist, Mogae paints serene beauty into a truly ugly story. A remote lodge full of drooling dogs and cannibal killers is filmed in frightening, dark strokes. It’s the ultimate haunted house – not just due to the depraved cretins lurking within, but because of Mogae’s black aesthetic.
With translator in tow to cut through the language barrier, Kim Jee-woon promotes his supremely scary film before its stateside release in March. The filmmaker’s thoughts on villains, re-makes, and the nature of serial killers transmit through a New York speakerphone and into my Seattle-area voice recorder.
Your previous films were “The Good, the Bad, and the Weird,” and “A Tale of Two Sisters.” How would you compare “I Saw the Devil,” in terms of production challenges and distribution?
The production time and post-production were shorter than on the previous films. And because of the violent imagery, there was censorship. It was the first film in Korean history to be prohibited from screening there. (According to the Korean ratings board, this decision was based on “scenes that severely damage the dignity of human values”.)
In many horror films – I think of the “Saw” franchise – violence is the star. In contrast, the violence in “I Saw the Devil,” however brutal, serves its plot and characters.
From the beginning, I was interested in the circumstances in which two opposing characters can collide. One is a very frightening character. The other is a cold, ruthless kind of character. Two extremes, colliding because of the need for revenge. That was what interested me. The actions of the revenge are raw and strong. But I was more focused on the emotions behind these kinds of things, and strayed away from the technical portrayal of these actions… more on the emotions that make these actions possible.
“I Saw the Devil” unleashes Kyung-chul – one of the most ferocious, frightening screen villains of all time. Did the film’s screenwriter base this infernal beast on some past antagonist from cinema or literature?
The screenplay was initially very raw. It started off with a more simplistic take on the events – the revenge and the counter-impact. When I was thinking about what I could do with this, and what direction I could take, I came upon the Nietzsche quotes, “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster,” and “If you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” These two ideas became the theme or starting point for this film: a good man turning into a desperate, tragic figure.
There was a book in which Francois Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock talked about films from the horror and thriller genres, and how they portrayed devilish characters. They said that the more creatively depicted the villain, the more interesting the movie. This was a point I remembered while making the film.
The diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder is characterized by a criminal disposition: a lack of empathy towards other human beings. Kyung-chul serves as an extreme example. Do you feel that this condition is the result of one’s upbringing, a genetic predisposition, or some combination of the two?
What’s tragic is that people are born equally. But circumstances can make one person good and another person evil. I recently watched “Apocalypse Now,” and thought about how war could change people. It presented people enduring intense, problematic psychological situations. People lost their humanity and became devils, in a way. Everybody has the capacity for this kind of evil, but can change and suppress it through education, upbringing, and societal norms. But other things can incite (evil). I thought that this was an interesting idea.
I think that there’s a difference in how this is portrayed, in terms of Eastern and Western philosophies. In the West, there’s more focus on individual aspects of good and evil. In Asia, there is more focus on the larger societal group one is part of; that these things are incited when one individual feels betrayed, or cornered in a way. This turns the character against the group .
I think that in film and in real life, when you compare serial killers in the West and East, the West has a tendency to see them as not affected so much by the environment, but by individual characteristics. In Korea and greater Asia, serial killers are thought to be some kind of environmental or societal problem. Their rank in society – say, their wealth or lack of wealth – incites some people to turn out that way.
Why is it that you feel that some films either don’t translate well from one culture to the next, either in terms of quality, or audience appeal? American re-makes of foreign films are usually disasters…
I think that a film’s unique mood gets lost in the re-make. When a film’s story crosses cultures, I think people try to explain things a little more in the re-makes… explain why things happen. As a result, the mood of the original, and possibly some detail unique to that culture, is lost. When approaching a re-make, cross-culturally, one needs to retain (the original film’s) own breath and mood. I don’t think I’ve seen a very successful remake.
“I Saw the Devil” played the Sundance Film Festival, and you’ve been promoting it across America. What are some common questions that you’ve fielded from other journalists? Which aspects of the film are receiving the most attention from interviewers and audience members?
One question that often comes up is, “Where should audiences focus their attention during this film?” If you are only concerned with actions and images of the film, it could be (perceived as) a regular horror thriller. But I was trying to portray emotions and characters. I hope that people also take into consideration the psychological drama built around these characters. If they can take notice of both (action and drama) at the same time, it will be an interesting experience for them, and what I’m hoping to get across.