Girl Meets Context: This month is Brutality Month on Girl Meets Freak, where we’ll watch some of the most recent examples of ultraviolence in horror movies. This week, Kim Jee-woon’s third collaboration with South Korean heartthrob Lee Byung-hun is also their most violent… Lee plays Soo-hyun, a secret service agent who is devastated when his virginal fiancé is brutally murdered by sociopathic thrill-killer Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik). Soo-hyun makes it his mission to exact long, slow and brutal revenge on Kyung-chul. What follows is a visceral and phantasmagoric exercise in breath-taking action setpieces and stomach-churning acts of violence. Kristine and I sat down to discuss the movie in-depth, including the gender politics (or lack thereof), the movie’s status as an ostensible “male melodrama” and how it is possibly similar to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (considered by many to be his “worst” play). If you haven’t seen I Saw the Devil, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Kristine: I want you to guess if I liked the movie or not!
Sean: I think you loved it.
Kristine: I did!! How did you guess?
Sean: I just got that vibe.
Kristine: I thought I was Laura Palmer, full of secrets. I Saw the Devil was horrible and ridiculous and funny and I thought it was great. I only have one major complaint. Guess what that is….
Sean: That all the women are treated like disposable diapers?
Kristine: Yep! In the world of this film, the men (at least the twisted leads) are practically superhuman, and the ladies are uniformly victims. In fact, they are mere bodies with no subjective personhood. Just bodies to be assaulted, chopped up and terrorized. Did that bug you?
Sean: My short answer is: yes, of course it did. But my long answer involves asking questions about the sub-subgenre of the “revenge film” itself. With the exception of the exploitation sub-genre of rape/revenge films, I think the “revenge film” is a classically masculine one, right?
Sean: The revenge movie tends to be very heteronormative and very male in all ways. The only counterexamples I can think of are the string of 1980s and 1990s thrillers that feature unstable women often out for “revenge” like Fatal Attraction, Single White Female or The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Obviously, those movies are so problematic because the audience is always invited to root against the avenging woman and cheer for the person who destroys her, unlike in this movie and all the other macho revenge films I can think of, where we’re rooting for the male hero to get his revenge. In those ‘80s/’90s thrillers, the female revenger is always the enemy.
Kristine: I agree with that. And I think the conceits of the revenge movie are mostly geared towards the male protagonist, especially the “cut off your nose to spite your face” element of many revenge films. That is a very male construct, where the revengers masculinity is articulated by how much punishment and suffering they’re willing to bring down on themselves in order to complete their quest. It’s always seen of as a marker of their toughness and strength, like Soo-hyun in this movie. Ladies are usually portrayed as being more pragmatic and wanting take actions that lead to improving their situation, instead of just being like, “Fuck it all.” The only exception I can think of is Kill Bill, which itself is just the template of the male revenge movie with Uma Thurman inhabiting the lead role.
Sean: Yeah and back to Fatal Attraction or Single White Female, that willingness to inflict pain and suffering on themselves in order to get their revenge is portrayed as female hysteria and masochism, rather than toughness and dedication.
Sean: Can you think of a classic lady revenge movie that isn’t about being raped?
Kristine: I can’t think of a lady revenge movie that is a good parallel, except Kill Bill. All the other ones are either rape/revenge movies, or one (crazy) woman coveting what another (sane) woman has – that’s the case in all the ones we have already mentioned, plus À l’intérieur. And another big element of those movies (Fatal Attraction, Single White Female,The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, et al) is that there is a clear Madonna/ Whore complex to the heroine/villainess. In Fatal Attraction, Glenn Close’s character is seen as a deluded, mentally unstable superslut and Anne “Scientology” Archer’s character is seen as a moral, upstanding and proper “lady.” Whereas in I Saw the Devil, we’re supposed to see Soo-hyun and Kyung-chul as different sides of the same coin, yes? Rather than diametrically opposed archetypes?
Sean: I’d agree with that.
Kristine: One of my favorite touches in I Saw the Devil was Tae-Joo (the disgusting, giggling cannibal freak) acting as a sort of demented audience surrogate. He is the one with the expositional dialogue, pointing out to Kyung-Chul and Soon-hyun (in separate scenes) that they are the same animal.
Sean: This, for me, is one of those movies that I would feel hard-pressed to defend against detractors. It is so ultraviolent and sexist, I wouldn’t blame anyone who was offended or horrified by it. I remember, when it first came out, hearing it excoriated on a radio movie review show. I forget which one. And my favorite online magazine, Slant, panned the movie.
Kristine: Really? Wow.
Sean: Yeah, Slant called it “Another Korean revenge fantasy that negates its moralizing by wallowing in the ghastliness it nominally asserts is unfulfilling and destructive” and “revelry in depravity [that] winds up trying to elicit excitement and entertainment from (and confer legitimacy upon) the very activities the story supposedly condemns. Consequently, the film is just hypocritical exploitation.” I respect Slant a hell of a lot, and think they write some of the best film reviews/critiques on the Internet, and even though I understand their complaints (and the complaints of others who have found the movies too gory, too brutal and too morally simplistic), I just don’t feel that way about the movie myself. It’s been a couple of years since I watched the movie, and I felt like re-watching it might make me realize that the critics were right and my initial good feelings about the movie were misplaced. But after re-watching it I was like, ‘Nope, I fucking love this.’ I think it’s (a) masterfully made – the cinematography, choreography and performances all continue to astound me – and (b) gut-churningly effective. It is so visceral and so involving, I simply cannot dismiss it. Not to get too high-falutin’, but I feel like the split consensus on this movie echoes the academic split consensus on Titus Andronicus, with people like Howard Bloom, on one side, calling it “a howler”, “a poetic atrocity”, “an exploitative parody, with the inner purpose of destroying the ghost of Christopher Marlowe” and “a blowup, an explosion of rancid irony” and people like Jan Kott, on the other side, alleging that Titus Andronicus actually epitomized the nature of Shakespeare’s genius because “[it gives] an inner awareness to passions; cruelty ceased to be merely physical. Shakespeare discovered the moral hell.” I am well aware that I Saw the Devil lacks the historical sweep of Titus Andronicus, but I’d argue that Titus Andronicus is the ancient ancestor/progenitor to movies like I Saw the Devil. I really believe that the movie is trying to use violence with moral force, as a real shock to the senses. Yes the gender politics of the movie are abysmal, but as long as we note that I am satisfied to move beyond it, to focus instead on the movie’s propulsive terror and blistering energy.
Kristine: I was shocked by how much I liked I Saw the Devil, despite it being brutal as hell to sit through. And I was even more surprised by how the action/torture/violence scenes were some of my favorite bits. For example, I thought the whole greenhouse fight was amazing! Maybe part of what made it enjoyable (if not exactly palatable) for me to watch is that it is so over the top. I mean, the violence and bodily injuries are all realistically depicted. It’s not cartoonish, but at the same time it IS cartoonish, because there is just no way human bodies could sustain those lickings and keep on ticking, right? No way. And also Soo-hyun being the most amazing action hero/special agent ever? He is basically a superhero, which brings a kind of absurdity to the proceedings that, if played entirely straight-faced, would be less effective. What was the grossest moment for you?
Sean: The two moments that made me die: 1) Kyung-chul bashing in Chief Jang’s face over and over.
Kristine: Oh God, yes.
Sean: 2) Soo-hyun like, tearing that guy’s mouth open by each jaw. Horrible.
Kristine: Yeah, that was awful. I forgot about that one! For me, the one that made me turn inside-out on the couch and tear my toes off was when Tae-joo tried to pull out the spike thing that staked his hand to the table and he just pulls off the handle. And then he pulls his hand up and off!! I was dying, but it was also funny, right? What did you think of Tae-joo?
Sean: He was fine, but he didn’t jump out at me as being particularly delightful.
Kristine: I loved him! When he is standing in front of his lady-body freezer, browsing for what he wants to eat, like you and I do in front of our not-body-filled fridges? Hilarious and twisted and amazing. What did you make of his girlfriend, Se-jung?
Sean: She also didn’t really register for me. To be honest, I think I was too mesmerized by the two leads to notice many of the side characters.
Kristine: You are not being fun, but I accept this.
Sean: For me, Lee Byung-hun as Soo-hyun is the standout. I think the movie might cross the line into exploitative crap if his incredibly sad performance wasn’t anchoring it.
Kristine: That is interesting! I would reckon a guess that yours is an unusual opinion.
Sean: The scene were his fiancé’s head falls out of the box and rolls in front of him? And the camera just shows him slowly realizing what has happened?
Kristine: Right. I loved how the movie uses two severed, rolling heads as bookends.
Sean: The rolling heads! The discovery of the fiancés head is played for sick gallows humor and I sort of loved it, and was sort of made nauseous by it. I just think Lee Byung-hun is amazing. He’s also one of the best-looking men on the planet.
Kristine: Oh, I know! From my notes: “Soo-hyun is super fine.” But I did love love love Kyung-chul. He was a showboating rockstar.
Sean: The scene at the end, where Kyung-chul is tied up in Soo-hyun’s weird Rube Goldbergian guillotine and he is just like, ‘You’re never going to get what you want out of me. Fuck you.’ That was amazing.
Kristine: I agree that Kyung-chul’s ending speech to Soo-hyun was amazing. When he is like, “No matter what you do, I’ve already won and I always will be the winner.” At the risk of getting a reputation for always connecting every movie we watch to David Lynch, did you read the little boy’s discovery of the severed ear as a shout-out to Blue Velvet?
Sean: I wrote it in my notes! “Boy finding an ear = Blue Velvet.”
Sean: So how and why does this movie rise above the levels of ultraviolence to be so satisfying?
Kristine: Well, before we get into that, since I already asked what scenes of brutality made you want to die, what scenes did you love? I already mentioned I thought the entire greenhouse sequence was amazing. I also was really kind of wowed by the speedy cab ride double-stabbing scene. Like, wowed both by the filmmaking and the gonzo gall of it.
Sean: Both of those are big highlights, for sure. I mean, the movie is two-and-a-half hours long but it felt like 45 minutes to me. It just moves from setpiece to setpiece to setpiece and they’re all great.
Kristine: Yes! You know I have no patience for long movies, but I feel like this one can’t be short – it has to be an exercise in endurance, right? And over the course of that exercise, your allegiance may not shift to Kyung-chul, but it does shift away from Soo-hyun. Or at least you become frustrated with him.
Sean: To come back to the women in the movie, I was continually frustrated with how Soo-hyun’s focus is always on inflicting punishment on Kyung-chul and the women are just sort of lucky to get away in the melee, if they do. Like that nurse?
Kristine: Oh, I agree completely. Like that poor, caged, almost-eaten girl in Tae-joo’s lair.
Sean: I think the murder of the fiancé’s father and sister is the big turning point. So horrible.
Kristine: Soo-hyun isn’t focused on saving them! It’s all about terrorizing Kyung-chul.
Sean: I kind of respect that the movie doesn’t turn Soo-hyun into this paladin protector of ladies – that’s not what this is about. It’s his Dark Night of the Soul and the movie never shies away from that.
Kristine: Agreed. He’s as much of an antagonist as Kyung-chul is.
Sean: I feel like, somehow, the violence in this movie must be accounted for. I think I Saw the Devil is a classic “male melodrama,” meaning it’s about histrionic emotions and operatic states of being, but the ultraviolence stands in for a lot of the emoting and catharsis of the traditional melodrama. The violence – how visceral it is, how immediate and shocking – occupies the space in melodrama normally set aside for, say, Sally Field’s big graveyard breakdown scene at the end of Steel Magnolias or Barbara Stanwyck’s big tearful denouement in Stella Dallas. One thing a lot people don’t want to admit – especially straight guys – is that there’s very little difference between the histrionic excess of movies like Stella Dallas and Steel Magnolias and so-called “guys’ entertainment” like The Grey, Warrior or a tv show like BBC’s Ripper Street. They’re all operating in the same emotional register. I see I Saw the Devil as fitting in with all that, as being as much an exercise in excess and catharsis as Beaches is.
Kristine: Uh… hell yes! From my notes: “MELODRAMA MAXIMUS.”
Sean: But I love that the emotion is still there in I Saw the Devil, and Soo-hyun’s huge cathartic breakdown at the end really worked for me.
Kristine: Yes, I agree. I think the musical score was a small but deliberate nod to the classic melodrama, don’t you think? That soaring, dramatic classical music….
Sean: Good call. Yes, I agree completely.
Kristine: I also wanted to add that I think the inventiveness of the violent setpieces and the unexpected humor present in even some of the most brutal moments also elevated it for me.
Sean: But I wonder – I feel like one implicit argument the movie is making is that perhaps the most “appropriate” way for men to work through their issues and feelings is through the use of brute force and violence. Is that too Gender Studies classroom, circa 1998?
Kristine: No, I think that is totally valid. I thought it was interesting that women are SO not at the center of this story, even though Kyung-chul is a killer of women. The women are besides the point, they’re props in the psychological melodrama of the male characters. But even though we see Kyung-chul in action, the violence bestowed upon women in the movie and the damage inflicted on their bodies is a mere 1/10th of what we see the men do to one another. And, a nod to your point about brute force being something essential to the masculine, did you notice that, except for the shotgun, all the weapons and methods to inflict violence used in the movie were primitive and/or medieval? A lot of variations on just fucking bludgeoning people to death. Very caveman, right?
Sean: Yes! You’re brilliant. And to return to your point about Soo-hyun being a kind of “superhero” in the movie, both he and Kyung-chul are Male Warriors in the archetypal sense. This movie is some Roman Coliseum shit. It’s fucking in-the-midst-of-Ghengis-Khan’s-army kinds of shit. And Kyung-chul is the “supervillain” to Soo-hyun’s nominal hero. I’ve always called superhero comics “soap opera for dudes,” and this movie may be the perfect text to watch bear that out. The basic structures of the superhero story – the tragic backstory that kicks the hero into gear, the epic clash between hero and nemesis, etc. – are employed here, but stripped down to their Grand Guignol/Titus Andronicus bloody essence.
Kristine: Yes! Yes yes yes.
Sean: One more brief gender-based complaint: Joo-yun, the fiancé, is so infantilized in her one scene. Soo-hyun singing to her over the phone, like she’s a little kid who needs a lullaby?
Kristine: We’ve already established I loved the movie, but all this gender talk is making me fondly recall Thirst… I love that Tae-ju is allowed to act ugly and violent in that movie.
Sean: Tae-ju 4-eva!
Kristine: The character that infuriated me the most was Joo-yun’s sister, getting all cow-eyed over her dead sister’s fiancé. How she was more worried about his emotional well-being than her own, or the fact that her sister was raped and murdered. She should be the one kicking ass in this movie. If only she was Tae-ju…. Please note that when Kyung-chul goes to attack Joo-yun’s family, the father is still alive when Soo-hyun arrives on the scene and his beating is shown on-screen. Simpering sister is already dead, and she doesn’t even a death scene! This movie is so damn testosterone-y!
Sean: Yes, agreed. Wait, I don’t think Joo-yun was raped, was she? Did I miss that?
Kristine: Hmm… Maybe not, but I felt like it was mentioned several times that Kyung-chul rapes his victims and then kills them.
Sean: So I say this is a Masterpiece.
Kristine: May I issue one more minor complaint and then rate it?
Kristine: Well, this definitely works with the whole “male melodrama” thing, but I loathe the trope of revealing that a character was pregnant when she was killed as a way of upping the ante/increasing her worth. It’s a total pet peeve of mine.
Sean: Yes! And how she wanted to wive in the countwy wif her widdle babies?
Sean: I thought it was entirely possible she was lying about being pregnant to try to get Kyung-chul to spare her life.
Kristine: That would have shown more gumption and smarts then I think this movie is contractually allowed to bestow on its female characters. So, seriously, do you think I Saw the Devil is just about men and the male experience and so that is why the women are a big void? Or do you think the absence of any real female character is actually problematic?
Sean: I feel like this is a “male melodrama” and so the women are there to represent Ideas that matter to the men involved. Why am I giving this movie a pass? “You’re not a person, you’re just a symbol,” says this movie to all its female characters.
Kristine: So it is a deliberate choice, but not a sexist one?
Sean: No, I think it’s sexist. But somehow, that doesn’t drag it down for me. I think it must be acknowledged, but then the context of the movie should determine how we think about it. As an example of the “male melodrama” and a Grand Guignol working-out of the hetero-male psyche, this movie has a lot to recommend it. Is it still depressing that all its female characters are vapid ciphers and symbols? Yes. But that doesn’t mean the movie has nothing to offer.
Kristine: Yeah. The only valid excuse I can find is something you said – making the women so nothing underscores the reality that Soo-hyun is not doing this for them. So maybe there is a quasi-legitimate reason behind the choice. Regardless, it didn’t make me not love this movie, but it was glaring and did bug a bit.
Sean: Kristine, who is the “I” in the title? The subject who sees the devil?
Kristine: I think it is both the leads – Soo-hyun sees the devil in Kyung-chul, and then in himself. And vice-versa. What do you think?
Sean: I’m not sure, but I like that. Could it be Joo-yun who is the “I”?
Sean: Maybe it is meant to be a kind of blank universal “I.” Since the movie is about coming face-to-face with the evil that resides in all men…
Kristine: Right. There is no way that this movie is even remotely feminist, but I do think it throws a side-eye at the Alpha Male, right? All these people let Soo-hyun go forth with his crazy-ass, selfish, self-righteous and self-indulgent plan and society is greatly harmed by it, right? I like when society finally turns against him and is all, “Hey! You’re a fucking asshole!”
Sean: Yes. Agreed!
Kristine: So my rating is… Problematic but fun as hell! I totally enjoyed it. Does that make me one sick twist?
Sean: Yes. But we knew that about you.
Kristine: That’s true. But this confirms it.
The Girl’s Rating: Problematic but fun as hell!
The Freak’s Rating: Masterpiece!