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on Mar 2, 2011

Korea’s love affair with genre film continues unabated in the hands of cult favorite Kim Jee-woon, the versatile 46-year-old writer-director of A Bittersweet Life (revenge thriller), The Good, the Bad, and the Weird (Eastern Western), and the award-winning A Tale of Two Sisters (ghost story). This avatar of Extreme Asian cinema certainly has his share of fans at home and abroad—a major retrospective of Kim’s work, “Severely Damaged: The Cinema of Kim Jee-woon,” ends a five-day run at Brooklyn’s BAM Rose Cinemas this evening—but his latest ultra-stylish provocation, I Saw the Devil, made the censors queasy. Several minutes of the film were trimmed before its world premiere at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival so that it could be publicly exhibited in South Korea, and now Magnolia Pictures (through its genre-focused wing, Magnet Releasing) is releasing the director’s cut with the offending scenes intact.

Turning catch-the-serial-killer conventions on their head with dark flashes of humor and imaginative flair, I Saw the Devil introduces a psychopathic part-time school-bus driver named Kyung-chul (Oldboy’s Choi Min-sik) whose latest victim, dispatched in the grisliest manner imaginable, happens to be the daughter of a retired police chief. Most distraught is her fiancée Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun), an agent for the National Intelligence Service who acquires a dossier on a few of the most likely suspects—repeat sex offenders and men suspected of killing for sport—and begins to hunt them down, meting out punishment as he sees fit. When he finally catches up to the monstrous Kyung-chul, however, nabbing him in the act of sodomizing a new victim, Soo-hyeon’s real agenda becomes clear: He intends to torture the maniac, inflicting as much pain and humiliation as possible, then release him so the brutal pattern can be repeated. (After battering the unconscious Kyung-chul martial-arts style in a botanical garden, he forces him to swallow a pill-size GPS tracking device—and then leaves him in an open grave.) Subsequent meetings bring them closer together, spiritually as well as physically, in the manner of John Woo’s The Killer. Gruesome visions of dismemberment and cannibalism are not to all tastes, clearly, even if Kim’s stated concern is to examine the irony of audiences identifying with a sadistic hero. But suffice to say that the film’s noirish, color-saturated visuals and one tour de force setpiece—a knife attack in the back seat of a taxi choreographed for a 360-degree shot—are where the film tilts into genuine artistic expressionism.

Filmmaker spoke briefly with Kim about genre, the limits of violence, and the ethics of vengeance. Magnolia Pictures opens I Saw the Devil on Friday.

Filmmaker: Do you think different genres reflect different values?

Kim: There are many kinds of fears in our lives, and each genre of film has a very representative fear that it [represents]. You could say that sci-fi is the fear of the future or uncertainty, melodrama would be the fear of losing love or love that may not be achieved, horror could be the fear of something unseen, and thriller or action films could be the fear of violence or danger. So I think genre is one of the most immediate and adequate ways of dealing with these different kinds of fears and dilemmas.

Filmmaker: What do you think is the proper mode of expression for the thriller?

Kim: I think suspense is the most important aspect of thrillers—visually expressing that in the frame. That can take many different forms, [whether it’s] a Hitchcock film or a Coen brothers film or a David Fincher film. They’re all working with thriller elements, but execute them with different styles. What I wanted to do with I Saw the Devil was to see this kind of thing pushed to the very limit of what’s possible, to really drive it all the way to the edge and see where that takes us.

Filmmaker: Could you say a little more about what “going to the limit” means in this instance?

Kim: There are moments in this film that are very close to the limit of what we think is acceptable and are pushed a little further. There are moments where you could have said “enough” and ended the scene right there, but we linger a little longer than usual. Really what I was trying to do was drive home the pain and the shock just a little harder and stronger to the audience. Of course, vengeance is the central theme of this film, but I was sticking very close to the emotional journey of Soo-hyeon, the cop character, and that’s probably why it comes to be so direct in that way. It’s about transferring my hurt and my pain and what I imagine my spouse to have felt when she was killed. And transferring that in exactly the same proportion to Choi min-sik’s character, and in effect, directly to the audience. If people were shocked by this, I don’t think it was purely a reaction to the violence. Rather there’s a certain recognition that audiences will make, an emotional connection that is possible, with seeing this normal person descend into such despicable and horrible acts. To see how far someone can go [with vengeance] is another shock that happens when you see the film.

Filmmaker: The theme of vengeance has been important in the Western literary tradition, in the plays of ancient Greece, for example, but moments of violence that were enacted for an audience were always connected to an ethics or moral lesson of some kind. What would you say are the ethics of I Saw the Devil?

Kim: If there’s a moment of confusion or discomfort or feeling that the subject matter is heavy in this film, it’s probably at that point when [a viewer] realizes what this vengeance really means. People have a fantasy regarding vengeance. At one point, every person thinks about something like this, but there are ways to suppress or contain it in their normal lives. Seeing this kind of vengeance that they fantasize about so literally and directly onscreen is a surprise to many people. There is the ethical and moral dilemma. Hopefully, they realize what is driving these actions, because there are circumstances that have brought it to this point. But there’s also a dual nature in that they want it to be carried out. So people will see both sides of what that really means—going to extremes to carry out this vengeance but also knowing that morally, socially, and ethically it is unacceptable in our own lives. In thinking about what direction I could take this story, since it wasn’t my own script, I came upon a passage from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, which roughly paraphrased was, “One that hunts the monster must be careful not to become the monster.” And the other passage was, “The longer you look into the abyss, the abyss will look back into you.” I felt those words very strongly and thought I could use those passages in flushing out Soo-hyeon’s character. Ultimately, the story is about one man’s very desperate, tragic circumstance, where he must become the devil to defeat the devil. It’s an inescapable situation he has no other way of resolving.

Filmmaker: Is it natural for you to work and express yourself in a way that appeals to critics and general audiences alike?

Kim: It’s definitely not an easy thing to do! [Laughs] It’s becoming more and more difficult for me to satisfy both of those audiences. There’s always going to be that divide of commercial and artistic films and I think there are times, because it’s becoming difficult, when I’d rather just cater to one of them. Ultimately, I make the film I want to make. That’s one of my first priorities, and I work in that direction.

Filmmaker: In what ways did the two actors you worked with here, Choi Min-sik and Lee Byung-hun, express different shades of the monster you alluded to before?

Kim: There’s a moment in the film when Soo-hyeon puts the GPS device into Kyung-chul’s body, by forcing him to swallow the pill, and what that means symbolically is that he is becoming the same as the devil. He is breathing the same breath, he’s doing the same movements and speech, he hears everything that character is hearing by tracking and emulating him. By ratcheting up the action, the vengeance that he takes portioned out over the course of the film, he becomes an even more fearful force than the serial killer. Once that pill is out of Kyung-chul, that’s when the tables are turned.

Filmmaker: Does it surprise you the level of interest that people outside Korea have in your body of work?

Kim: I’m very happy that the film is being shown at what I hear is such an excellent and artistic institution, and the fact that it’s here in New York, such a culturally rich place, is obviously a happy occasion for me. Being able to show these films in a different context like this, and to be able to see the film met with a different kind of mindset, by different people with different kinds of lives, is an honor. So I’m glad it’s happening.

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