I really love serial killer films. Sure, there’s a whole, whole lot of terrible ones, but some of the all-time greats have the dual advantage of functioning as thriller/action film and character study: Seven, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, 10 Rillington Place, Man Bites Dog, Shadow of a Doubt, etc
I Saw The Devil is an ultra-violent Korean film from Jee-Woon Kim, who’s The Good, The Bad and The Weird put him on the American map. I don’t really watch many films that are as violent as this. I like horror, though I don’t watch much modern horror. I like dark films, but they’re usually more thematically dark with sporadic violence. I like thrillers, but prefer the suspense to the constant onscreen blood.
The first scene of I Saw The Devil is possibly the best. Joo-yeon (San-ha Oh) has a flat tire. A school van pulls up in front of her on the empty road and a stranger, later to be revealed as Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi) offers help. It’s late, there’s no one else on the road, and she’s but a helpless girl, so Joo-yeon rolls the window down a crack and politely refuses. She then calls her fiance, secret-service-type Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee). He advises her to stay in the car. They hang up. She waits. The snow falls. And…without giving too much away…the proverbial feces hit the fan.
Kim shoots this opening scene so beautifully and suspensefully, preferring to stay mostly in Joo-yeon’s or Kyung-chul’s POV through their respective windshields. The effect is multi-fold:
First, the opening, as we drive in Kyung-chul’s POV, wipers going lightly, snow falling gently, headlights illuminating the road partially, we are treated to an eerie but beautiful moment. Little do we know that we are also in the position of the stalker.
Second, once we are introduced to Joo-yeon the POV switches and the female (victim) perspective mostly takes over. Kim uses Joo-yeon’s POV to suspensefully build and strategically keep Kyung-chul mostly obscured.
By alternating between the perspective of murderer and victim Kim smartly sets us up for the rest of the film, one in which we’ll alternate between sympathies even occasionally (albeit very rarely) feeling for Kyung-chul. The opening demonstrates the easy transferability of POV and how underrated the technique is in cinema. It can be quite powerful if used properly. What would the effect be if, say, Kim had shot the entire scene from Joo-yeon’s perspective?
Instead of the opening, essentially tracking shot from Kyung-chul’s car, we’d be static, looking in a rear-view or through the back window, as the car approached. We’d pan with it as it came to a standstill. This is an effective shot, but without the juxtaposition of Kyung-chul’s POV we’d lose a) the feeling of creepy progression, b) the feeling of, as I mentioned before, stalking, c) the jarring feeling of being forced to look through a murderer’s eyes.
Imagine for a moment if the first shot remained the same, but was later revealed to be her boyfriend simply coming to rescue her. At the moment of its inclusion in the film, the shot would retain its eerie properties, but would instantly deflate at the moment of the reveal. It would feel like a joke (which can be effective at times – there’s a great example of this in Blue Velvet when Kyle MacLachlan comes downstairs in a noir-ishly silhouetted wide-shot). Good cinema should work long after the shot/scene/film is done. As is, the shot has said eerie properties, which then compound when we understand whose eyes we’ve just been searching through. Lose that shot and Kyung-chul becomes only a nameless killer, not a dangerous killer who actually thinks and feels. The quickest way to understand a person is through the eyes – film is no different.
Ramble, ramble, ramble.
Anywho…I Saw The Devil is also quite successful in its portrayal of goodness gone bad. This is done via Kim-soo Hyeon, who is so torn up over the death of his fiance that he goes on a rampage that would make Charles Bronson blush. Some of it is standard stuff, including a naive reliance on his part on technology, but when the death toll starts racking up in part because of Kim-soo’s negligence…then the usefulness of complete revenge is questioned and it becomes interesting.
The final scene of the film is very brutal, but it’s pretty interestingly done in terms of Kim-soo’s definition of true retribution.
Here’s another film I saw at the Shanghai International Film Festival: