Thursday, March 17, 2011
KPBS film critic asks why we are drawn to horror and review "I Saw the Devil."
"I Saw the Devil" is the latest horror film to arrive from Korea. But it's extreme nature may prompt you to ask what makes some people willing to put themselves through the grinder? Listen to my radio feature or read my extended review.
I confess. I'm a fan of horror. I adore films that take me someplace dark. SDSU grad student Patrick Johnson feels the same way. That love of horror prompted him to design a research project to see if there were any positive benefits to watching horror.
PATRICK JOHNSON: I think it makes you feel better after you watch it by not being quite as anxious 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.
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: 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.
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.
When her body is discovered, it makes her husband, special agent Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), hellbent for revenge. His wife's killer turns out to be a particularly evil customer who seeks out the weakest victims. But when he finally confronts Kyung-chul (Choi Min-Sik who was the one exacting revenge in "Oldboy") we discover that his revenge is only beginning. Soo-hyun 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.
"I Saw the Devil" never reaches the emotional complexity or level of Shakespearean tragedy of Park Chan Wook's revenge trilogy ("Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance," "Oldboy," "Lady Vengeance"). But director Kim Jee-Woon does turn "I Saw the Devil" into a disturbing tale about the darkness that lies within the human soul.
Kim references this quote from Friedrich Nietzsche: "He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. When you gaze into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” So 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 Jee-woon throws at us is that the line differentiating good from evil grows blurred and dangerously thin. Soo-hyun'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. Soo-hyun's prolonged vengeance prevents the police from catching the killer and locking him up. So even with Soo-hyun on his tail Kyung-chul continues his reign of terror, killing fresh victims and exacting an additional price on Soo-hyun. As Shakespeare said, “blood will have blood,” and that seems to be the only certainty here.
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 uses gore to shock the audience and to make sure they understand the extremes people are capable of. Yet it is often his subtlety that provides the most chilling moments. Take a young woman stranded at a bus stop. Kyung-chul drives up to offer a ride. We know he's targeting her as his next victim. So Kim places the camera at ground level behind the woman's feet so that we can catch her stepping tentatively backwards. Her instinctual move away from Kyung-chul says so much about her vulnerability, her fears, and her sealed fate, and it's chilling.
"I Saw the Devil" (in Korean with English subtitles and for mature audiences only) is a compelling example of Korean extreme filmmaking – it’s engrossing, disturbing, provocative, and well crafted. It puts you through the grinder by exposing you to the darkness lying inside the human psyche. Its 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.