Friday, January 14, 2011
Cast: Byung-hun Lee, Min-sik Choi
Director: Kim Ji-woon
Runtime: 145 min.
Country: South Korea
Verdict: The best film of this year. A great film. A masterpiece. A work of pure genius.
Genre: Thriller, Horror, Comedy
If one were to ask me the greatest script ever written, or the most astoundingly structured film of all time, pat might come the reply – Chinatown. I might not be right, but then it is that rare thriller, probably the only thriller, that scene for scene doesn’t feel like in motion. It is the present moment that leads to the next, and as in most movies, that present moment is merely a means to go the next. Even a brilliant thriller like The Usual Suspects doesn’t feel like living in the moment (and it has all the reason to), and the feel is that the film is already preparing for something surprising that is just lurking somewhere around. I think it has something to do with the length of each scene, but I don’t want to come out stupid. So never mind, and we’ll leave that analysis to a later date. Convenience abounds.
As against most of these movies, the good ones and even the remarkable ones, where one gets a sense of the movie’s general direction of motion even though we’re in the middle of a scene, where one feels that movie is more attached towards its overall arc than the moment in question, where one feels the filmmaker is in a state of constant departure while always arriving, I Saw the Devil feels like a celebration of the moment. Celebration might be a very wrong word here, although I believe Kim Ji-Woon’s films believe in the celebration of the moment. Unlike Mr. Chan-wook who lays out a schema of bloody violence masquerading as poetry, Mr. Ji-Woon’s films aren’t about exploring an overbearing arc of symmetry in life. They are deeply committed to the moment, and moment after moment, they always let go of themselves in it. His are films that live and revel and ultimately destroy themselves in the emotion of the moment. It is now that counts, not the past, and not the future. It is the secret to the ecstasy of his films. Yoon Tae-goo in The Good The Bad The Weird was the goofy lovable kind hiding a rather monstrous past, and yet, even when the mystery is revealed Mr. Ji-Woon doesn’t alter his tone and interpretation of the character. Tae-goo remains the Tae-goo we’ve known for the past two hours or so. The past is different, and despite the presence of A Tale of Two Sisters, I feel like claiming with a certain degree of authority that Mr. Ji-Woon is probably indifferent to it. I say despite because the horror genre, by its very nature, is rooted in the present, and even its most average offerings are constructed out of moments. How else, you see, one can be scary other than to build a moment and provide a pay-off. What’s actually interesting to note that in A Tale of Two Sisters, much like Memento, the protagonist is locked inside a version of the past, and that version is her present. That present is not a layer but the truth. That seems to be the nature of most of Mr. Ji-Woon’s films. The future, well, I don’t think his characters think too much about it. And that is what drives his movies, formally and thematically – the revelation of the moment. I think revelation might be a word I was looking for.
Of course that being the case, one might infer that thematically, Mr. Ji-Woon might be a fantastic choice for the horror film but the wrong choice for a revenge film. I mean, there is all that bull about revenge being a dish that is best served cold, and countless movies – from the brazen Death Wish movies to the immorally solemn The Secret in their Eyes to the downright ugly I Spit on Your Grave – try their level best to make the audience watch a “horrifying” crime and then set on their path of manipulating characters and story to achieve that payoff at the end. I’ve always maintained that a revenge film is probably one of the easiest genres to tackle, and one of the easiest to manipulate the audience into. Once you’ve a naturally revolting bit of crime on your hand – a rape of a “beautiful” girl (innocent lamb, and beautiful mind you) – it is just pure genre mechanics to have the avenger go all rage and then find the guilty and punish him to our satisfaction. The satisfaction is the key here, and any morality that these movies get into is little more than washing your hands and walking away. The best (or the worst, or the most interesting) part about your revenge picture is that we walk away from them having the satisfaction of the culprit getting what he deserved. What is revenge, moment for moment, the suffocation and the temptation and the ecstasy, is hardly anything our movies explore.
And so, Mr. Ji-Woon is your person. And I Saw the Devil is probably the answer to the last paragraph. It might just be the ultimate momentary examination of the cinematic revenge, which in many ways is no more than how we imagine our personal revenges to be. It offers no poetics. It is just revenge gone bloody and dirty and filthy and wholly satisfying. A man’s beautiful and innocent wife is hacked to death by a psychopath. That is the premise for you. In fact, that is the plot for you. That, and how the man gets revenge. Revenge movies generally dwell in the what. They are about the content. Events happen there, characters get introduced and one actually feels a narration doing the rounds. Not here though. The film is completely about the how. It is about the process. You want evidence? In a 145 min. movie the man has the psychopath pinned down at the 51 min. mark. But then, it is your wife right? You wouldn’t want to go easy on him.
So yeah, I Saw the Devil is a surprising film, filled with surprising aesthetic choices, surprising events and surprising natures. It is what I call pure cinema, and not Hitchcock. It is a movie and Mr. Ji-Woon is a filmmaker who is never tied down by a genre or tone or content. They are children of pure cinema, as the movies of Paul Thomas Anderson are, where wit and sadism and genre and style and cinematic fantasy and plot and virtuoso shot-making and violence and dialog and action and everything else you cherish at the movies freely flow in and flow out. It is a movie where, in the middle of it all, the psychopath (Mr. Choi) meets two silly-looking petty criminals, probably harboring ambitions of being the next Hannibal Lecters but instead achieving the distinction of the two gentlemen upon whom Marcellus Wallace’s men go medieval in Pulp Fiction, and it forgets everything and descends into a maddeningly brilliant 360-degree shot-run where the psychopath repeatedly stabs both the men. I am not someone who cherishes movie violence, but then it is exhilarating. Not the violence, not the content, but the way Mr. Ji-Woon goes about the film. There is a screwdriver that makes an appearance and provides for the single biggest laugh for a movie moment since Harrison Ford simply shot the goon. It is the kind of movie where you imagine Quentin Tarantino watching and crying and probably running around naked in the room jumping and shouting about the sheer awesomeness of it all.
The title reads the word devil, I can only expect Kim Ji-Woon to deliver on it within the opening act. It is a masterpiece of establishing the tone, and the plot, and the general equation. As I noted with Shutter Island, the opening act here does what it is supposed to do. But unlike there, where the only purpose achieved was of establishing, Kim Ji-Woon immediately puts us in the necessary state of emotion, and once that is done, delivers what is probably the scariest moment I have experienced at the movies since the birthday-video alien in Signs. That was an innovative shot, and this is a clever shot, taking the help of cinema and the leverage it provides by ways of editing and framing, and then building upon the leverage (supernatural) to actually establish the word – Devil! You see, if everything felt logical, like a Christopher Nolan picture, then there would be no devil. But then again, leave it to Mr. Ji-Woon to be firmly ground in the real world and still unleash a momentary flash of the devil. Reader, I know, I might be running around the periphery but I really don’t want to spoil it for you. I want you to jump in your seat, and scream, and want you to rewind and then watch it again and still be startled, and then again. It happened to me, and I am not easily affected by the boo-scary films. So yeah, that is the brilliance of the shot.
The establishing of the equation though is a stroke of genius. And when compared to Shutter Island, the enormity of the chasm actually comes to the fore. Both use a stereotypical, but whereas the Scorsese film becomes an archetype a picture postcard, here it blossoms into a moment. A little romantic moment having a life of its own. Everyone of us has such sweet little anecdotes, a couple deep in love, and it doesn’t matter if we know them or not. A woman is trapped in the snow. She is awaiting the tow truck. It is her birthday. Her fiancé, the man, his name Soohyun (Mr. Byung-hun Lee), is busy elsewhere. He is a secret agent. They are talking on the phone. He is surrounded by his men. He walks into the restroom to gain a little privacy so that he can sing her a song. Mr. Lee is a great actor, probably Korea’s answer to Alain Delon. You watch the scene, and the movie, and you would know why. Mr. Ji-Woon establishes the beauty of the relationship so effortlessly, and so when the crime happens it is so easy for him to draw leverage from the emotions that have been held collateral by this opening act.
And it is these very emotions that cause Mr. Ji-Woon to have even a close-up act as a perspective shot. It proves, as the best of Korean cinema does, that a shot by itself doesn’t signify a specific reaction from the audience. It is the way the shot is employed that drives us, and here when Soohyun walks out of the burial deeply shattered and crying in fits, the close-up tracking shot is the perfect aesthetic and formal choice to explain his state of mind. In such a moment of utter grief or shock, we often do not know where our legs are carrying and our navigational senses aren’t exactly functioning, the close-up mirrors in our emotional state that of the man.
Then again, Mr. Ji-Woon is not merely a master craftsman. He is, first and foremost, a filmmaker whose aesthetics by compassion, belief in the goodness of men and fearlessness of the politically incorrect. All these I like. And I seek. A greatly moving sequence in the film, constructed with mathematical precision and a heart, is the one where the police find the body of the dead woman. I love these sequences at the movies, where the whole force is searching for something in the night, and there are floodlights all around. Seldom do filmmakers provide the attention these sequences demand, invariably cutting and presenting the principal characters only establishing the action around as merely a backdrop. That is sad because when the whole force is established and presented as a character, there seems to be a certain feel-good factor to it. You see, in school punished alone was not as fun as being punished in a bunch. I admit that I’m certainly sentimental to the whole brother-in-arms thing, but such sequences – in Memories of a Murder, in The Chaser – and now here, where a whole lot of people are involved feels that much more optimistic towards the nature of us all. Compare it to Mr. David Fincher, and Se7en, and Zodiac, especially the latter, where there are little to no such scenes and how bleak and lonely it all feels. Except for the one time when the whole SWAT team finds the drug peddler. In Zodiac, Mr. Fincher isolates these cops from various precincts and unites them through their individual isolation. But when we see them as a whole, as in here, we at least don’t feel lonely. There’s always a certain reassurance when strangers come to the rescue. I guess, thematically, I’m a Rio Bravo guy than a High Noon-er (although the latter is a greater film).
The scene is a work of beauty in the way it simultaneously brings both the individual and personal concerns (the woman’s father and her fiancé Soohyun) and the collective (the force) to the fore. And it presents the force not as a collection, but as a set of individuals. There are three arcs going around in that sequence and it is fascinating how I Saw the Devil develops and provides the emotional punch to all of them. The sequence is authentic and professional and personal and chaotic all at the same time. It is important to know that the personal make the professional and when one the former is upset, the professional becomes chaotic. It is a great scene, in what is a great film. I have watched the film 6 times already, and that sequence – with its construction and the performances (Mr. Byung-hun Lee has the camera all to himself) – has made me cry every single time.
The sequence that follows is even more fascinating in the way it ends itself. The father and the fiancé are sitting on a bench. I leave you to discover what the nature of the conversation is, but what is fascinating is how the final composition of that scene is. Let me grab you the frame.
The woman in the frame is never shown. She might be anybody – right from the supernatural to the very real. Both the options are provided within the film, and it is just pure genius how Mr. Ji-Woon doesn’t show who the woman is. What is interesting to note is that the sequence directly cuts to the picture of the dead woman. The interpretation depends upon which part of your brain is more dominant and how poetic one is, and how much into the Nolan camp one is. I could go on, and describe to you the brilliance of each shot. But then again, I would have to write a whole lot more than a review entertains. I Saw the Devil is love revenge and fear all packed in there struggling with each other. It is a product wholly of the heart, and the way it guides the thought process. It is often bloody and disgusting, often frustrating but then always visceral. It takes its time with the revenge and structures itself as an elaborate climax. I wouldn’t want to divulge any further.
Apart from mentioning a funny little thread I Saw the Devil indulges in, which in hindsight, as I review the film, neither appears to be funny nor little. I seem to be getting more and more convinced that this thread is quite probably the thematic backbone of the film. You see, the film structures itself into an on-the-run chase film, which in turn has elements of the road movie genre. That ways the psychopath meets various other people, who turn out be other varieties of cinematic serial killers – right down to the petty rapist to the Pulp Fiction freakshow duo to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre dumb cannibal. It felt funny then. Even the psychopath is a variation of The Joker. It is fascinating how Mr. Ji-Woon makes him so cool (of course, one does not have much of an option with Mr. Min-sik Choi). So yeah, it feels like a referential freakshow. But then, somewhere in there, the movie’s protagonist assumes quite rightfully his self righteous nature and begins punishing each of them – with a hammer on the testicles a pervert, ripping apart the mouth wide open of the cannibal – one might start to imagine Se7en’s John Doe. Or probably the Batman. The psychopath does feel pain at first, but once he gets to know the score, he starts to enjoy it and the more Soohyun beats him the less satisfying the revenge tends to get and the more desperation one feels to inflict a satisfying enough suffering upon him. It is the arc the Batman and The Joker ought to share theoretically. That they feel like doppelgangers might feel cool, but inherently it is nothing more that boyish fascination. The true emotion must be of mutual hate, a hate that we feel. We feel for Soohyun, and we hate the psychopath. And therein lay the ending. It is one of the great moments in the history of cinema, formally (one of the best shot-reverse shot close-up that I have ever seen so brutal and primal in its impact) and thematically, and it is quite surely one of the great endings in the way it doesn’t provide closure but provides satisfaction and yet asks more questions than any resolution. The feeling is ambiguous. It has much to do with origin (cue: The Joker has no origin). I still don’t know. It is strange let me tell you. But not empty. I tell you the revenge has not been empty. And has not been any sort of dive into inhumanity. But then it is haunting. And yet satisfying. It is something enormous that Mr. Ji-Woon has come up with. I tell you, this is Kim Ji-Woon’s second claim in a row to being the best genre filmmaker alive. Ah, what the heck, let me throw it in - probably the best filmmaker alive.
Posted by Satish Naidu at 9:56 PM