Next year will see three of South Korea’s most commercially successful and critically acclaimed directors present their English language debuts. Kim Jee Woon (THE LAST STAND), Park Chan Wook (STOKER), and Bong Joon Ho (SNOWPIERCER) have already proved themselves in their homeland, and here at THN we are taking a look back over their past efforts. Now on the last film of Kim Jee Woon, join us each week over the course of the next few months as we explore The Land Of The Morning Calm.
Director: Kim Jee Woon
Cast: Lee Byung Hyun, Choi Min Sik, Jeon Gook Hwan, Cheon Ho Jin, Oh San Ha, Kim Yoon Seo, Choi Moo Seong, Kim In Seo
Plot: After a serial killer murders the fiancé of a secret service agent, he is hunted down in a series of vicious revenge attacks.
Mention the words ‘Korean Film’ and one’s mind immediately jumps to ‘revenge’. Not without good cause either. Sure, Korea have given us an incredible array of films but in the early naughties the ones getting the most attention were the films that focused on individuals seeking out vengeance. Director Park Chan Wook even gave us an entire trilogy (which we’ll get to later in the series). For anyone who’s spent time in South Korea, revenge seems like a rather strange subgenre for the country to adapt. Perhaps it is in some way related to issues of identity concerning the occupation and division of their country. Perhaps the viewing public see revenge films as a way of healthily living out dramatic fantasies concerning their frustrations. Or maybe it is because OLDBOY became a worldwide smash and the producers wanted to continue with the formula.
Kim already gave us half of a revenge film in A BITTERSWEET LIFE, but that took its time in building up the scenario. I SAW THE DEVIL is a whole different kettle of fish. Whereas the former film was about loyalty and betrayal shot in a poetic fashion, I SAW THE DEVIL is a brutally cruel and bleak film. There is no hope, no justification, and no future for these characters. The game of cat and mouse that ensues is simply a collision course with disaster. This is Kim taking Korean revenge films to a whole new level. In many ways this is a parody, taking serial killer elements to the furthest and most absurd extreme. If I were to try and describe it in its simplest terms, I SAW THE DEVIL is a serial killer revenge film crossed with a Tom & Jerry cartoon. In no way am I trying to undermine the visceral impact of the film. Kim always knows when to show violence and gore, and when to hold back, but the very nature of the film isn’t just revenge, it’s re-re-re-revenge.
Starting in complete darkness with nothing but the headlights on a car showing us the snow ahead, the film clearly states its intentions. The acoustic guitar haunts the soundtrack, making a nice change from your average serial killer flicks. The driver of the vehicle sees a car broken down wherein sits a young woman, Joo Yun (Oh) on the phone to her fiancé, Soo Hyun (Lee). Kim has his work cut for him here as he must set up a relatable relationship that will allow us to connect to the protagonist in just a few minutes. Such is the danger of jumping straight into a revenge film such as this. The car is white, Joo Yun’s coat is white, even the steering wheel and seats are decorated with a soft white cover. This use of mise-en-scene really does highlight her purity and makes her seem as though she is part of the snow falling outside. She’s fragile, delicate, and as we soon find out, easy to despatch. She is approached by a contrasting figure all dressed in black. He seems helpful, but this isn’t some teen slasher bimbo, Joo Yun keeps her cool and continues her phone conversation with her true love. Kim decides to give us a simple look at their relationship as Soo Hyun, a scret service agent trying to act all cool on the job, sneaks off to the bathroom in order to sing Joo Yun a love song. It’s all we need to see to feel the love, and it’s enough for us to root for Soo Hyun throughout the film. Well, at least at the beginning.
The not so good Samaritan is Kyung Chul played by OLDBOY himself Choi Min Sik, returning to acting after his self-imposed exile from acting due to disagreements over changes to the Korean screen quota, which is hailed as one of the main reasons for the incredible surge in output and appreciation for the Korean film industry. As Kyung Chul, Choi is a terrifying beast. That warm cuddly face gives way to expressions of pure rage and evil. It’s no wonder such a character could be a serial killer, as he is at first trustworthy before revealing his true colours. It’s no surprise that his vehicle of choice is a school bus, perfectly representing his approachable veneer. The attack is sudden, but quite generic for a Kim Jee Woon film, no surprise he’s keeping the real hardcore stuff for later. As Joo Yun’s body is dragged through the snow a trail of blood destroys the purity and beauty of the scene. Just when it looks as though Kim is letting us off easy, we cut to Joo yun’s naked body in a transparent bag. She moves. Her hell has only just begun. With rubber gloves and a cigarette in his mouth, Kyung Chul pays less compassion towards Joo Yun than a butcher would to a slab of meat. Seeing through Kyung Chul’s eyes and witnessing the attack, preparation of the body, and the clean-up, it’s terrifyingly clear how adept he is at the art of murder.
It isn’t long before Soo Hyun has retrieved the names of the top suspects in his fiancé’s murder and proceeds to track them down and beat them. The film decides to leave out specific details on why these guys are suspects of such a brutal crime, merely stating they have been questioned in similar cases, but that’s part of the great thing about this film, it gets to its point. When you see Soo Hyun interrupt a masturbating man and then beat his crotch with a wrench, you get the feeling Soo Hyun equals business. Eventually he is on the trail of Kyung Chul, who in the meantime has murdered another woman and taken a schoolgirl captive. Soo Hyun interrupts Kyung Chul as he attempts to rape the schoolgirl and a fierce fight takes place. It seems almost too well choreographed, but this once again puts us in a state of heightened reality. In many ways the heightened reality seems to be saying “If this is how disturbing this film is with obvious entertainment added, how horrid would it be without?” Perhaps Kim is making his film easier to stomach, without detracting from the overall themes. Soo Hyun soon overpowers Kyung Chul and there’s a humorous moment where, having subdued Kyung Chul and after a long pause, Soo Hyun beats him some more. You can almost see the orchestra putting down their instruments only to rush and pick them up once again as they try and keep up.
Soo Hyun stops short of killing his prey, and instead places a tracking device on him which also allows him to hear everything Kyung Chul says. Quite the unique spin on the revenge thriller, as Soo Hyun even leaves money for Kyung Chul to get around. Obviously killing Kyung Chul would have brought no such satisfaction, and once he is gone, will Soo Hyun have a purpose? Kyung Chul is picked up by a taxi and in a weird turn of events, they too turn out to be killers. It’s quite bizarre seeing characters, which may have just stepped out of their own film, quickly dispatched by someone even more despicable. The scene once again highlights the absurd world the film takes place in, but also shows how proficient Kyung Chul is at what he does. He kills both attackers as the camera continuously pans around the inside of the car. It’s a shocking and exciting moment that rivals OLDBOY’s hallway sequence. Kyung Chul then makes his way to a medical centre where he gets treated and then forces a nurse to perform oral sex on him, only for Soo Hyun to appear and once again beat Kyung Chul, this time cutting his Achilles tendon. The scene shows Soo Hyun’s relentless determination and his capacity for unspeakable violence, but also shows how his actions in repeated revenge puts others at risk. Had he apprehended or killed Kyung Chul in the first place the poor nurse would never have been subjected to such cruelties. Is this justice or self-satisfaction?
However, the sexual abuse of the nurse has no lasting effect on Soo Hyun, as he once again allows Kyung Chul to walk free with the intent of hunting him down once again. Kyung Chul takes this opportunity to go and visit some fellow serial killers in the form of his cannibalistic friend Tae Joo and his girlfriend. Seeing a serial killer have a friend that is also involved in grotesque activities sets this in the world of monsters. God knows how they met or how their conversation turned to their specific hobbies, but as Kyung Chul sits down for dinner there is a warmer and more recognisable family/friendly atmosphere than anything our ‘hero’ Soo Hyun is given. Soo Hyun listens in on their conversation and is forced to listen to the killers’ assessment of his mental state. It’s obvious by this point that he is becoming just like them and this ultimate punishment he is enacting may be going too far. As Soo Hyun attacks the house and its inhabitants, you wouldn’t be shocked to see Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern also trying to break in. This is HOME ALONE, with a lot of blood and cringe worthy scenes of pain.
The film reaches a nerve-shredding conclusion that can only be described as inevitable. Kyung Chul takes his own form of revenge and Soo Hyun is forced to face up to his behaviour no matter how justified he thinks it is. Lee and Choi’s performances are faultless throughout. As Lee engages in the violent parts, we often forget why he is doing these things, but a brief second later we see the pain in his eyes and are reminded of that opening scene. This is probably how Soo Hyun feels himself, getting caught up in the adrenaline and excitement of such primitive behaviour, before realising his love isn’t going to return. Choi is a horrifying but darkly comic delight. His reactions to Soo Hyun’s behaviour are hilarious, as he calls him “crazy” and shows no understanding as to how his own behaviour has triggered these events. He is meticulous and callous and perfectly treads the line between calm and shockingly unhinged.
Perhaps my earlier assertion that this is like a Tom & Jerry cartoon was a bit simplistic. Like A TALE OF TWO SISTERS, this took numerous viewings to fully appreciate, but is now a genuine favourite. Rather than being a cartoon, this is a fable, a dark and gruesome fairytale. The over the top and bizarre events don’t harm the film, they enhance it and its themes. Like Hansel & Gretel (the story, not the Korean film) we don’t have to believe there are witches in gingerbread houses that prey on children. What we do have to believe are that there are strangers who will cause children harm. Here, you don’t have to buy into the sheer amount of killers and monsters, because the message remains the same. Revenge is a dark and slippery slope, and unhealthy fixations will lead to more people you love getting hurt.
What To Take To THE LAST STAND? The violence will certainly be toned down, as will the harsh cruelty. But perhaps we will some of Kim’s unique camera work such as the taxicab attack. Let’s also hope for some interesting mind games between the heroes and villains.
THE LAST STAND is released on 18th January 2013 in the US and 25th January 2013 in the UK. It stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Johnny Knoxville, Rodrigo Santoro, Jaimie Alexander, Forest Whitaker, Peter Stormare, Luis Guzman, and Genesis Rodriguez.
We’ll be taking a break next week, after which we will start our look at the films of Park Chan Wook. You can find all the articles in the series here.