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Film Review: "I Saw the Devil"

March 16, 2011 4:50 p.m.

KPBS film critic asks why we are drawn to horror and review "I Saw the Devil."

Related Story: Review: 'I Saw the Devil'


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

KPBS-FM Radio Film Review: "I Saw the Devil"
By Beth Accomando
Air date: March 17, 2011

"I Saw the Devil" is the latest horror film to arrive from Korea. Its extreme nature prompted KPBS film critic Beth Accomando to ask what makes some people willing to put themselves through the grinder.

DEVIL (ba).wav
SOQ 3:50

(Tag:) "I Saw the Devil" opens tomorrow (Friday) at Landmark's Ken Cinema. Check out the KPBS Teen Review of the film at K-P-B-S-dot-O-R-G-slash-cinema-junkie.


Horror films can put you through the grinder yet some people are still drawn to them.

PATRICK JOHNSON: (0325) I like watching scary films because I love the feeling of being scared. But I know that it feels really good to get really scared and terrified but to also know that you’re safe. So it's a big difference between having something scary happen to you in real life and getting to watch it on a screen. (:17)

Patrick Johnson is an SDSU grad student researching the effects of horror films. And coming up on Morning Edition KPBS film critic Beth Accomando suggests a Korean horror film that’s worth putting yourself through the ringer for.

I’m a horror fan. I adore films that take me someplace dark. SDSU grad student Patrick Johnson feels the same way. That passion for horror prompted him to design a research project to see if there were any positive benefits to watching horror.

PATRICK JOHNSON: (0125) I think it makes you feel better after you watch it by not being quite as anxious maybe in your everyday life. A lot of horror films are based on real life fears and personal phobias. And by watching these exaggerated horror scenes it kind of helps you deal with those fears. (:22)

It’s like exposure therapy. At 26, Johnson is the target demo for American horror films. And he’s focusing his study on Hollywood movies. But he's noticed that Korean horror films develop character and story in a manner that affects him differently from homegrown fare.

PATRICK JOHNSON: (0541) I think when you feel more invested in the characters the fear starts to be less about personal feelings associating with the film and starts to deal more with developing a relationship with the characters that you see so you become invested in their safety and not so much transporting it back to your own life. (:18)

In watching horror films from around the globe, I’ve noticed a distinct cultural difference in the way violence and terror are used. In Japan, it seems like an act of rebellion against its polite national character. In Hong Kong it's like a flamboyant declaration of style. But in Korea it’s often about the destructive nature of violence and how it can damage those on both sides of a conflict, and that’s fitting for a country divided in two.

"I Saw the Devil" blends a serial killer procedural with a revenge tale. It opens with a young woman stranded late at night in the snow. A man stops to offer help. She refuses then he attacks her.

CLIP Attack

When her body is discovered, it makes her husband Dae Hoon hellbent for revenge. His wife's killer turns out to be a particularly evil customer who seeks out the weakest victims. But when Dae Hoon finally confronts Kyung-chul we discover that his revenge is only beginning.

CLIP (in Korean) "Your nightmare is only getting worse."

He informs the serial killer, "Your nightmare is only getting worse." Then he begins his cycle of torture that involves inflicting bodily harm then letting Kyung-chul go only to track him down and assault him again.

CLIP SFX beating

The title "I Saw the Devil" reflects a changing dynamic in the film. Kyung-chul is a devil and he doesn’t inspire our sympathy. But Kyung-chul's violence also blinds a good man to his own humanity. The twist director Kim Ji-woon throws at us is that the line differentiating good from evil grows blurred and dangerously thin. Dae Hoon's personal revenge is very different from the justice the police seek. In a country that's been torn apart by war with families split across a border, Kim's film suggests that revenge may not be a way to heal pain and loss. It may not be effective either. Dae Hoon's prolonged vengeance prevents the police from catching the killer and locking him up. So even with Dae Hoon on his tail Kyung-chul continues his reign of terror, exacting an additional price on Dae Hoon. As Shakespeare said, “blood will have blood,” and that seems to be the only certainty.

CLIP sounds of knives

Kim's unflinching approach to his brutal subject matter means that "I Saw the Devil" is not for the squeamish. But Kim directs the film with masterful control. He puts you through the grinder but with purpose. The film’s gore is likely to inspire comparison to American torture porn like "Saw." But Kim's film is so much more complicated and provocative. In the end he implicates the audience and makes us accomplices in the crimes because we initially hunger for revenge. So the devil may lie within us as well.

"I Saw the Devil" is a compelling example of Korean extreme filmmaking – it’s engrossing, disturbing, provocative, and well crafted.

For KPBS, I'm Beth Accomando.