MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

Digital Nation: ‘I Saw the Devil” … the horror, the horror

Somewhere near the top of any list of proverbs trampled into the dirt by screenwriters and their protagonists is the one that posits, “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” It sounds ballsy, no matter who says it, while also alerting viewers to the ferocity of the carnage to come.

After witnessing the effects of eye-for-an-eye justice in Jee-woon Kim’s new blood-drenched horror/thriller “I Saw the Devil,” another proverb leaped to mind. No less an authority on the human condition than Confucius once cautioned, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

In “I Saw the Devil,” the fiancé of a Korean secret agent is kidnapped and butchered after her car is disabled by a flat tire. Moments before the killer breaks into the car, the woman – who we later learn is in the early stages of pregnancy – calls her husband, who cautions her against accepting help from the stranger. The final things he hears are the sound of glass shattering and his fiancé’s blood-curdling screams.

Had Kim decided to bypass the woman’s torture and fast-forward to the discovery of her mutilated corpse in a rural marsh, only the most sadistic of viewers might have objected. Instead, as if to make it explicitly clear as to the degree of evil here, Kim demanded of his makeup-effects artists, set designers and cinematographer that they create as nauseating a spectacle for viewers as they possibly could muster. They succeeded.

In the world of horror and suspense, it’s what happens after the blood dries and the cops close their notebooks that matters most. A smart film demands of its viewers that they join in the pursuit of the monster, while the dumb ones only strive to pique their voyeuristic curiosity. The violence in “I Saw the Devil” may match the savagery in such genre fixtures as “I’ll Spit on Your Grave” or “Saw,” but Kim respects his audience enough to create a serial killer whose madness and cunning have the same effect on the grieving cop as Hannibal Lecter had on Clarice Starling in Jonathan Demme’s “Silence of the Lambs.” Ultimately, it becomes a question of who will crack first, the hunter or the prey.

What Kim and screenwriter Hoon-jung Park know and the killer and audience are about to learn is that the secret agent, Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee), has been trained to go toe-to-toe with the toughest hombres in the North Korean army and the victim’s father is a respected police official. The old man knows that he should entrust the investigation to his crack officers, but can’t resist the temptation to allow Kim to exact his own form of justice on the criminal.

Conversely, what Kim and Park know and the secret agent and viewers are about to discover is that the killer, Kyung-Chul (Min-sik Choi), probably could take out an enemy platoon himself. He’s a match for the cop physically and mentally. Too often in American movies, serial killers are portrayed as sick loners with mommy issues. Even those able to stand up to their pursuers physically aren’t able to match wits for long with a FBI profiler on a mission from God.

Without giving too much of “I Saw the Devil” away, Kim has more on his mind than simply executing the man who killed his fiancé. Forget the business about an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. He wants Kyung-Chul’s eyes, hands, feet, head and entrails, too … and not all at once, either. Kim demands that his prey endure a long, lingering punishment.

In his mind, a quick death or lifelong prison term wouldn’t result in justice or bring closure, anyway. It’s living with the uncertainty of when the final painful blow will come that is most tortuous to a man who’s accustomed to calling all the shots.

Hubris, though, can be as fatal a disease as cancer. The cop seriously misjudges Kyung-Chul’s ability to absorb pain and recover from even the most heinous of non-lethal punishment. By playing possum, the killer is able to catch his breath and devise ever more insidious ways to get into the head of his pursuer. By the time the police chief figures out what’s happening and tries to call off the dog he’s unleashed, the death toll has risen with the loss of innocent lives.

In Jee-woon Kim’s mind, that’s what elevates one school of horror above others. He differentiates “I Saw the Devil,” the evil-stepmother thriller, “A Tale of Two Sisters,” and Chan-wook Park’s “Vengeance Trilogy” (“Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Oldboy,” “Lady Vengeance”) from the vast majority of movies released year in the filmmakers’ willingness to make the audience do some work, too. In “I Saw the Devil,” there comes a point when viewers are required to consider the motivations of the protagonist and decide for themselves the nature of heroism. Moreover, they must ask themselves how they would react if something similarly horrible happened to a loved one and they possessed the wherewithal to seek revenge.

In run-of-the-mill genre titles, viewers aren’t required to do much more than watch what’s going on before their eyes and register their opinions with screams, laughter or snores. He admires the work of David Lynch and David Fincher, directors who elicit more visceral responses from audiences.

Just as America’s top actors are drawn to their films, Korea’s most popular stars want to work with Kim, Park and others identified with horror and suspense. Choi, who starred in “Oldboy” and “Lady Vengeance,” brought the script to Kim, with the intention of playing the role of Satan’s envoy.

“I Saw the Devil” is opening Friday at L.A.’s Nuart and New York’s IFC theaters. Kim is confident that arthouse audiences will be able to stomach the gore and appreciate his film for its more heady conceits. After all, that ground has already been broken by such filmmakers as Guillermo Del Toro, Quentin Tarantino, David Cronenberg and Darren Aronofsky. Fans of horror living outside of the major metropolitan centers will have a more difficult time finding Kim’s film.

According to Devin Faraci, a writer and editor for, genre enthusiasts have begun turning to such pay-per-view outlets as IFC Midnight and HDNet, in part because VOD allows them to join in the dialogue on blogs and niche Internet sites. Right now, fans in the boonies can gather around the electronic fireplace, where they’ll find such titles as “We Are What We Are,” “Wrecked,” “The Housemaid,” “Kaboom,” “Black Death”and “Tetsuo: The Bullet Man.” (IFC was the most convenient place to find “The Human Centipede,” a horror film that truly separated hard-core fans from the wannabes.) Distributors of niche DVD films also have begun meeting the demands of the voracious consumers by seeking out movie from previously untapped markets.

“The last 10 years in Korea have been interesting,” Faraci said. “The ones we see here are smart and not afraid to push boundaries. Korean filmmakers are very big on revenge movies.”

In “I Saw the Devil,” he adds, the “secret agent becomes the devil he sees. He steps to the edge of the abyss and the abyss looks back.

“Our readers have had Kim on their radar screens for quite a while. His signature visceral style ensures the kind of exciting experience they crave … the kind that gives you butterflies in the stomach.”

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Digital Nation

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon