I Saw the Devil (Akmareul boatda) is an epic, violent, serial killer film about the price of seeking revenge. At over 2 hours long, the audience is asked to endure extreme emotional and visual content— mutilations, rape, and cannibalism just to name a few. And director Kim Jee-Woon wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
His desired effect was to create an authentic experience, harsh, but never cruel enough to lose the audience for good. For a defeated audience, he felt, would not be able to feel the catharsis when the movie ended, that things are returned to normal and they could go back home to their families away from this graphic revenge tale, where no one wins, but everyone suffers in unspeakable ways.
Heather Buckley: Why did you decide to name your film I Saw the Devil?
Kim Jee-woon: There are a few different meanings for the title. Obviously the first would be that we see the devil in this serial-killer character and when we first come upon him, and second would be when we first thought it was just a serial-killer, we start seeing the descent of So-Hyun’s character in such desperate and extreme ways that we start seeing him turning into a devil. The third would be the audience members finding inside themselves the desire to see a more complete kind of revenge, and kind of wanting to watch this scene of revenge play out and take its course, and finding in that, in finding in a dark corner of their own selves, a devil inside there. Those are the three major ways you can take the title. So by taking note of these very raw, very basic desires and passions that are dwelling inside those dark corners of humanity, is where the title takes its inspiration from.
HB: Can you comment on the level of violence in your film?
KW: For the starting point of the film, we see one of the first acts of violence that Kyung-Chula, that’s the serial-killer character, takes on, but right after that, the film is really about this man who is taking vengeance on the serial killer, and in a sense, avenging his wife in a way and assuaging that point of the dilemma, so even though the starting point starts off with Kyung-Chul the serial-killer, it’s really more of a film about taking that vengeance, and it really starts from my asking myself, what would I have done if I were in a similar situation, like if my wife was done that way and I had to take revenge, how would I do this? How would I enact this revenge and this pain on this man? So, eventually, we focus on his steps and his progression towards becoming a devil himself. More so, then how a serial-killer might have wrongly done something, so because we are focusing more on that, the vengeance, more than on the initial acts, I could leave those things a bit to the side and leave them out in this narrative and focus more on the descent of one man into a very vengeful, very fearful devil himself. One that he didn’t think he was in the beginning.
HB: How does the subject of vengeance play a role in Korean extreme cinema?
KW: I think, there are, visually … vengeance as a subject matter is something that is very interesting to see and visually express, in a way, and I think that’s one of the reasons it’s dealt with a little bit more in film rather than in other forms of literature or anything like that. I would say it’s not a recurring theme in Korean cinema, there are other cinemas, US, Japan, other areas, that produce films that deal with revenge before as well, but what I think is common and what is in the center is that revenge is a very strong emotion, a very strong kind of action and very prone and easily adaptable for the visual medium of film, and that’s why I think it’s been dealt with so much. Korean audiences do tend to like these very strong films, and that it happens to be revenge, which is a happy coincidence I think, but generally I would say that Koreans like this strong plotting, and these strong, hard hitting films, and maybe that’s why we see these.
HB: What attracted you to the subject matter?
KW: So, the starting point for this movie was me asking myself what I would do if I were in those shoes of Soo-Hyun, how would I take my revenge and enact upon him the same exact terror and pain and fear that I felt and return that exactly to him, to satisfy that desire. So, it’s kind of a fantasy of revenge that we all at one point have in our lives and I think that what I was trying to do was opting on lingering the camera during certain scenes probably longer than I should have, or going over the limit of what we are used to just a little bit to really drive the point home, in a way, to more exactly transfer that pain and hurt to the serial-killer, Kyung-Chul, and in that transference of those pains to him, have that transfer over to the audience as well, so when they feel that discomfort and that pain, they can feel that point driven home to them because it’s just a little bit longer and a little bit over the limit of what they’re used to.
HB: How did you come to cast Choi Min-sik (Oldboy)?
KW: I didn’t, in fact, cast Choi Min-sik in this film, it was the other way around, he brought this script to me instead. Fans of these two actors in Korea, often compare this movie, saying that it was a clash between the villain from Bittersweet Life, and Choi Min-sik from Oldboy, to the point where a variation of that was used for the ad copy of the film, saying ‘One of the most funny, energetic actors, Cho Min-sik, clashes against a very cold, nuanced, Lee Byung-hun.’” So there was already, beyond the casting, much interest in these two actors coming together and kind of facing off in a film.
HB: And what are you, as the filmmaker, getting out of creating an unpleasant experience for the audience?
KW: It’s really one of the things I wanted the audience to feel, this uncomfortable kind of pain that they might get from watching this film, to make that pain, the hurt, really palpable and drive that point home to the audience, in effect. I think that if the audience didn’t feel some kind of pain like that, then it would have been a ‘fake’ kind of movie, it would have been just a regular kind of popcorn flick, where it’s just something to cast aside, but if the point is really driven home, then people are able to walk out of the theatre thinking ‘I’m glad my life is so much more peaceful than what I’ve just seen, then it would, there would be nothing more that I would want from them.
HB: So your film has a positive message?
KW: I’m hoping that what we see, that the pressure of the genre film, the pressure of this film within the genre is not too overbearing, it’s not a pure horror film that people will watch and be scared of but rather that once they’ve watched it, they’re able to have that sigh of relief, and like I said, appreciate and enjoy the peace that we have in our lives, and that would be the ultimate message I guess.
Read our I Saw the Devil review here.
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