STATS: MOVIE / SOUTH KOREA / DIR: KIM JI-WOON / 144 min. / 2010
If Oldboy is Blade Runner meets Sophocles, I Saw The Devil — generally considered South Korea’s so-far second greatest revenge film — is Fargo meets Edward Albee. Less colorful and stylized, colder, heavier, in many ways nastier, it meditates harder on the question of what revenge actually is, and what purpose it actually serves, given that it obviously doesn’t serve the purpose of righting any wrong (the lie that has to be told).
I don’t think revenge — as a human story, not just a Korean Movie story — has anything to do with getting even, or fairness, or the memory of the deceased. It’s not like the initial act is -1, the revenge is +1, and the place you’re trying to get to is 0.
I think revenge is about mimicry — someone does something so extreme (so impressive) to you that you’re compelled, in an irresistible, reflexive way, to do it back to them. In a sense, you owe them that; they deserve (and want) to suffer back from the world the pain they put out into it, in both the positive and negative senses of the word deserve.
In this way, revenge is a form of tribute. And, perhaps, the initial act of violence is an act of summoning revenge onto yourself, saying, Let’s get this process started.
The story is barebones: this older guy (serial killer, pervert, dead to the world, etc … ):
Kills the girlfriend of this younger guy (special forces police dude, doesn’t listen to authority, etc … ):
And this younger guy goes off the rails.
His vengeance quest turns into him punishing the older guy again and again, nearly killing him each time, only to nurse him back to health and play another round … until the older guy catches onto the structure of things and inputs an idea or two of his own.
An initial, out-of-the-blue violent act — predicated on a kind of ground-level insanity that can only come from the core of an individual — tears a hole in something (civility? restraint? denial?), through which a whole lot more violence can freely stream (IE, you can’t make the first move without admitting you’re insane, but you can react in the name of justice or doing the right thing or some such). The older guy is kind enough to give the younger guy this opening, and all too happy to suffer the consequences.
So the initial murder is the act of stomping an anthill, and the rest of the film is just ants seething and pouring out … until it’s finally empty and, for the time being, violence must be put to rest.
The AV Club has a point when it says that I Saw The Devil is about “the immutability of evil, which can’t be transformed or obliterated, but simply exists, cold and black, as a force of absolute destruction.” The seeming-immortality of both men, as they routinely survive death-level degrees of abuse, only reinforces this notion, as though evil has made them superhuman (at least as long as they remain driven by and vessels for it).
It’s incredible how many outside people get maimed and killed amidst all of this — like a war is being waged. But I admire the degree to which the movie holds off on being a morality tale. It’s not interested in saying, “If you chase the devil, you become the devil.” It’s smart and honest enough to assume this as a starting point, and try to show what happens once you’ve accepted it and decided to move forward anyway: when you get your chance to jump in and take it.
I do believe there’s a place and a purpose for morality in art, but it can’t be direct — for me, a work has to agitate or strain or titillate some moral nerve, presenting a tension-rich and irresolvable moral problem or morally problematic environment to stew and wade around in. It can’t make any moral pronouncement of any kind and not lose me.
What I Saw The Devil does instead is make the case that violence is sex that breeds more violence:
Through mutual engagement in violence, one man becomes the father of the other — or reincarnates himself in the form of the other, so that he can die at the end and go on living at the same time. The younger guy’s girlfriend said she was pregnant just before the older guy killed her — at the end, her spirit gives birth to a re-formed version of the younger guy, 100% on the path toward becoming the older guy and doing all of this all over again.
The relationship that develops between the younger and the older man is nothing if not that of a student and a mentor, coupled with a kind of superfertile but doomed romance. It’s not that it takes one to know one … rather, it takes one to become one.
Each man sees the devil in himself and in the other man, and the viewer sees it everywhere. It’s a condition of reality that can be sent into the shadows but never uprooted. The older man understood this all along, and is thus the only character at peace with himself. The younger man learns it along the way, until, like a spirit-guide whose work in this world is finally done, the older man allows himself to be killed.
Some consummation takes place. The foreplay goes somewhere.
More than any of the myriad scenes of torture, dismemberment, cannibalism, et al, the image that’ll stick with me is the younger man walking along wearing earbud headphones that transmit the feed of the tracking device that he’s forced down the older man’s throat — essentially listening to the older man’s thoughts in his own head. When he finally takes them off, after listening to the older man die, it’s surely not because he’s finished with that voice … it’s because he can now hear it in his head without any help.