Tuesday, October 14, 2014

I Saw The Devil (2010)

I Saw The Devil is not the supernatural Satanic story you might expect from the title (for better or worse). Precious few films with the word "devil" in their title are; many of them prefer instead to use the devil as a metaphor. With that in mind, I Saw The Devil is a Korean film on the popular subject of revenge fantasy, exacted via vigilante justice. Rather than glorify the act of justified revenge (a la Death Wish), and focusing more on the horror (through explicit gore) than action (like, say, Taken), there is a subset of this genre that focuses on the psychological damage caused by exacting revenge. This was exactly the theme of 7 Days - one of the more unsettling movies I've ever watched - as well as the premise of that new movie Prisoners that I have not seen yet.

The blueprint for this type of movie is pretty straightforward. The movie starts with some creep committing atrocious acts against an innocent - the more heinous the better, to provide as much justification as possible for the vigilante-to-be's future retribution. Then, a relative or friend of the victim gets some tip from the authorities and decides to take justice into his own hands - capturing the criminal (sometimes even taking him from the police, because heaven knows the justice system isn't capable of seeing justice done) - and torturing him in ways that make the criminal's initial crime pale in comparison. This is the typical setup, and it's plainly a wish fulfillment fantasy for anyone who's ever read about some creep committing a terrible crime, and then wishing they could do horrible things to the criminal (e.g., rip their balls off, feed them their own waste, skin them alive) - the sort of thing you see in the comments to any online news article.

In the traditional version, the audience is supposed to cheer on the vigilante, because his cause is righteous and the villains are getting only what they deserve. What movies like I Saw The Devil or 7 Days do, is make the carnage so explicit, and show the deleterious effects on the vigilante's psyche, so as to make the argument that the revenge is not actually satisfying, and the only thing it accomplishes is - not to make you feel better, but - to turn you into exactly the sort of monster you were lashing out against in the first place. Frighteningly, some viewers completely miss the point and still treat these movies just like the traditional version, and cheer on the vigilante, even as he destroys his own life and mental well-being, and ends up causing more suffering of the sort that led to this state of affairs than if he had dealt with his grief in a more humane sort of way.

Different movies make this point better or worse, and in different ways. 7 Days emphasized the lack of peace and satisfaction. I Saw The Devil does a great job of manipulating events to demonstrate how closely the vigilante becomes the sort of person that the killer was, in deed if not entirely in psyche. Although the way it ended left a little bit of ambiguity in terms of its message, which is not infrequently the case with morally ambiguous stories like this one. But in spite of the grim subject matter, this movie is very well done - with excellent acting and cinematography. It has a long running time, though. There's a lot going on in the movie, so it's not that it drags, but two and a half hours of sadistic brutality and mental quagmire has a way of wearing you down, perhaps more, even, than is necessary to get the point across.

I think it's telling that revenge fantasy has evolved to the point where we're no longer simplistically cheering on the vigilante, but observing how damaging and unhealthy revenge is. Although it concerns me that we haven't yet moved past that point. I, for one, understand that to give in to revenge is to let the devil win; but, in truth, there are still a vast many out there who don't seem to get it. So maybe we still need movies like this. And this is as good a one as I've seen. If it weren't for the sheer depravity depicted, and the stomach-turning grotesqueries on display, I'd count it on the level of cinematic epics as, for example, The Departed was in the mainstream gangster genre. But perhaps it's best, after all, if not too many people are exposed to movies like this one, in the end. Not everyone has to see the devil to know that he's bad news.

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