So here's the fucked up thing about I Saw The Devil.
It's a film about how ultimately dehumanizing and unsatisfying vengeance can be. The movie is a revenge story through-and-through, and revenge stories exist to empower the powerless through fiction. Bad things happen in life and our sense of order demands that someone be punished for it. It's a nice power fantasy and most revenge films feature an average man empowered by rage.
Kyung-chul, the serial killer who murdered Soo-hyun's pregnant fiance, is about as evil as they come. He spends the entire movie kidnapping, raping, and murdering women. His only friend is a cannibal who invades homes and carves up the inhabitants for supper. They're both shabby and unattractive men, though Kyung-chul approaches his work with a steely eyed, world-weary assertiveness that's undeniably compelling to watch. They're both evil men but they're not quite devils. There's something petty and pathetic about them that puts me in the mind of something I read this week: "Most things that seem satanic or malevolent are really just wretchedness and frailty that’ve been allowed to put on muscle."
Neither murderers have a chance against Soo-hyun. Soo-hyun is the perfect human agent of vengeance. Young, handsome, highly-trained, and brutal, Soo-hyun is basically a Korean Jason Bourne. After his fiancee's body is found at the bottom of a river (in one of the most chilling search-team scenes I've ever seen), Soo-hyun steals some spy gadgets from his office, takes a two-week vacation, and goes hunting. With the help of his fiancee's father, a former police commissioner, he quickly tracks down his fiancee's killer. The rest of the game is a brutal game of cat and mouse between the serial killer and the super agent. Soo-hyun refuses to turn his prey over to the police, preferring to prolong his quarry's torment, and Kyung-chul descends into depravity when faced by an opponent who outclasses him in every way.
This movie had been sitting in my Netflix queue for awhile because I felt like I could figure out how it would end from the synopsis: Soo-hyun would descend into Kyung-chul's level until the difference between the two men was almost nil. While Soo-hyun's revenge does eventually barrel over innocent people, the story is never that trite or obvious. No satisfying revenge can really be taken against Kyung-chul anyway. Soo-hyun can cause horrific physical pain to Kyung-chul (and some of his attacks run close to torture porn) but the effect is similar to Batman beating up the Joker in the interrogation room: a guy as crazy as Kyung-chul is eventually going to disconnect from what's happening to him and all you're left with is cutting flesh. Even torturing Kyung-chul inside his murder room fails to stir any empathy for his victims. Instead he goads Soo-hyun to kill him and treats Soo-hyun like he's wasting Kyung-chul's time.
So the film's title doesn't refer to Kyung-chul. Kyung-chul is essentially a selfish, ignorant creature of the id. The devil in the title is the realization that you can burn your entire life down to gain the object of your obsession and have it mean absolutely nothing. The movie ends without closure and with a sense of loss that's almost crippling. While researching this blog post, I came across the perfect one-sentence review for the film: "There is all the violent mayhem, for certain, but the thing that sets I Saw the Devil apart is its undercurrent of real emotion and how unrelentingly sad it can be."
I've never been
a big fan of Christian-based horror fiction because it tends to make
horror punitive, but I love the idea of the Devil. I love the idea of a
monster that seduces and corrupts rather than simply causing havoc. It's
subtle and more fraught with tension. Any psycho can stick a knife into
someone, but it takes a special kind of monster to take your spirit.
How many pieces of yourself can you give away before you're no longer
As cool as the idea is, the payoff never worked for me. There's a passage in Neil Gaiman's Sandman: Seasons of Mist
storyline where the devil bemoans the ideas people have that he goes
around collecting souls like a fishwife at market. A soul is too
abstract and meaningless of a prize. The devil needs something concrete.
In Man of Tai Chi, the amazing martial arts film from
Keanu Reeves, there's a moment when Keanu Reeves's sinister manipulator
Donaka Mark is watching surveillance footage of Tiger Chen. He focused
the camera on Chen's face, smiles, and says, "innocence." It's a
chilling moment. Up until that point I'd assumed Keanu Reeves was a
garden variety crime boss whose main business involved hosting deadly
fights for rich perverts. The second he targets something as ephemeral
as innocence he becomes something darker and more menacing.
Chen certainly doesn't lack for innocence. When I first saw the
trailer, I wasn't sure I'd buy the actor as an action star. His body is
too slight and he looked more like a teenager than a stern kung-fu
warrior. He starts the movie with a sort of naive impatience. He's
admirably centered in the face of his thankless delivery job, he's a
loving son to his parents, and he trains with a wise old man living in a
gorgeous temple. His sifu's talk of meditation and centeredness eludes
him. While a nice guy, it's clear early in the film that he's got a
serious case of Brown Belt Syndrome, the peculiar affliction most
martial artists go through when they feel a burning desire to test their
skills in a real fight.
Spotted at a kung fu exhibition by
Donaka Mark's recruiters, he's invited to a mysterious job interview.
Silent men pick him up in fancy cars and he's flown to an anonymous gray
building. He's escorted to a room, left alone for a few unsettling
moments, and suprise-attacked by a brutal Muay Thai fighter. Chen
overcomes the man, gets paid a significant amount of money, and invited
The rest of the film follows Chen's descent into hell. The
first dozen fights involve opponents using different styles and fights
in the same anonymous gray rooms. As Chen's skill and bloodlust grow,
he's brought into boutique fights on boats off the mainland, where he's
forced to descend into new levels of savagery to overcome a pair of
skilled opponents. Finally, when Chen has sunk to his nadir, Donaka Mark
asks him to break his final taboo: kill his opponent.
point in the film, I wasn't sure that Tiger Chen wouldn't take Donaka
Mark up on it. His later matches show him in complete control and he
doesn't so much beats as dominates his opponent. He'd been
kicked out of mainstream kung fu tournaments for excessive brutality, he
became edgy and impatient with everyone, and he challenged his sifu to a
rage-fueled match at the temple. The latter was a spectacular scene and
it felt like a child furiously rejecting the teachings of the father.
Unlike a lot of martial arts films, where the practitioner is almost
saintly in their morality, Tiger Chen has fallen dangerously close to
But Tiger Chen does hesitate when told to kill his
opponent. So Donaka Mark, clad in a black suit and obsidian mask, steps
into the ring and snaps the man's neck. The way Mark looks up at Tiger
Chen with wrathful eyes behind his expressionless mask reminded me of
the inhuman Michael Myers from the Halloween films. By that
point, I had no doubt that Donaka Mark was one of the most effective
depictions of Lucifer I've ever seen. He'd recognized something inside
Tiger Chen, cultivated it, and turned it in a darker direction. The best
seducers understand exactly where you're weak and get you to believe
that it is a strength.
One of the most interesting aspects of
the film is the ending fight between Donaka Mark and Tiger Chen. I'd
never previously thought of Keanu Reeves as a large person, but he
positively towers over his opponent. Unlike a lot of the
previous fighters, who attack with blindingly fluid swiftness, there's
something stiff and methodical about Mark's fighting style. He comes off
as unstoppable, again drawing a comparison to the unkillable Michael
Myers. The fight ends and we're left with some ambiguity. Did Tiger
Chen's sifu's philosophy sink in? Was Donaka Mark's corruption of Tiger
Chen complete? The man who stares off into the temple valley at the end
of the film seems sadder and more wise. Maybe he's won, maybe he's lost.
Once you shake hands with the Devil, you can never come clean.
There's so much good stuff
in the movie. Reeves turns out to be a surprisingly good action
director. He tailors his directing style to the characterization of the
fights. Fights were Tiger is in control are smooth exercises, whereas
fights where he's confused or afraid are chaotic without getting lost in
American-style shaky camera. There's a fantastic subplot where a female
police officer attempts to shut down Donaka's fight club, and she's
portrayed as both skilled and fearless. The legendary fight
choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping creates nothing less than a martial arts
ballet, where disparate styles clash together elegantly. The script is
strong, the performances are spectacular, and there's a lot of smart
stuff about purity versus corruption. Most martial arts films I've seen
lately are simply contests of the body. Action films in general are
examinations of the body in motion. Very few are about the soul at war