Arts Desk

Torturing the Audience? An Interview With Kim Ji-woon

Byung-hun Lee in "I Saw the Devil."

You may not know his name, but South Korean director Kim Ji-woon has left a lasting mark on Asian cinema. I Saw the Devil is his eighth movie, and it's certainly not his first to gain the attention of a worldwide audience. In 2008, his off-kilter homage to Sergio Leone, The Good, The Bad, and The Weird, won countless awards and critical accolades. Whereas that film was a goofy thrill ride of a Western, his latest offering is as dark and gruesome as they come. I Saw the Devil takes graphic violence and revenge fantasies to a new level, following a special agent whose wife has been brutally murdered. Rather than simply kill the sociopath responsible, agent Soo-Hyun (played by Byung-hun Lee) stalks and tortures the criminal, becoming a monster himself in the process. The film opens today at E Street Cinema. With the aid of a translator, Arts Desk spoke with Kim about the film and the disturbing content therein.

The first thing I was told when I went to the screening was that the film was very violent, and that I should be prepared for that. I think that was a fair warning. Do you think the extreme violence in the film was necessary to tell the story you wanted to tell?

The film starts with the question of “How would I perform my own revenge?” It’s a greater question of what would we do if we were in the same shoes. Many people will think about that question at some point in their lives, and there’s a certain fantasy of hurting someone in the same way we have been hurt. To take that to a greater scale and do it in such an extreme way, centering on the pain and the rage that the person went through, to exact that revenge in the same extreme way is what the question is. This is obviously a controversial issue, but I don’t think it’s specifically because of the action or the violence, but rather to see humanity break down in such a desperate, dark, and extreme way is sort of appalling. Seeing it on the screen this way is shocking, but not just because of the action.

There are several uncomfortably long scenes where one character repeatedly bludgeons another character in the face. Were these types of scenes difficult to film?

Those drawn-out scenes are there to push just a little bit more what we are used to and are comfortable with on film. They’re there to just to drive the point home a little bit stronger, in a more visceral way. The characters in the film were acting on these very extreme, very hurtful emotions—to transfer that into the plot of the film and visually to the audience, when I thought something had happened enough on screen, I drew it out a little bit longer. Shooting such demanding scenes, demanding of the actors performing it, it was very difficult on set. As a director it was difficult to do, but it was important to get that point across to the audience.

In this film, you worked closely with Byung-hyun Lee, who was also in your previous films, The Good, The Bad, and The Weird and A Bittersweet Life. Do you find it helpful to work consistently with the same actors, particularly in a film that demands so much of them?

Of course, there have been many famous pairs of actors and directors in history—Scorsese and De Niro before, maybe Scorsese and DiCaprio now—there are many examples of this. Those relationships are built on trust between the director and actor, and maybe they influence the effectiveness of the shoot. I didn’t know I would be working with Lee this time until right before the shoot. He had schedule conflicts, and I didn’t think it would work out, but one of the projects got pushed back and he was able to come on board. I think in working with him again, he was able to show a very cold-hearted character in a very nuanced way, which I am very thankful for. I was glad to work with him again.

As a film, I Saw The Devil touches on horror, but it seems to be more of a thriller in general. Were you consciously referencing any genres or films in particular with I Saw The Devil?

There wasn’t so much things that I was referencing in theme, but as a technical point of view, I was referencing David Fincher’s Zodiac in the look of the film. The colors and the contrast of that film were interesting and capture a certain visual mood of that period and that time frame. Making my film this time around, I also emulated that pulling down of colors and contrast, as opposed to my older films that had a lot of high-color, high-contrast production. I really toned it down for this film, and that gave it a really creepy sense of a grayish-blackish mood, closer to a horror film, but still in line with a thriller. Even though I was intending it to be more of a thriller film, audiences in the theater reacted as if it was a straight up horror film because of the content.

The women in this movie are basically all victims. Do you think protagonists in action films like this one simply need to be men? Or is that just how this film worked out?

I would say that violence is a bit closer to men in general. Serial killers are often driven by sexual desires that are very extreme and very strong. For physical and logistical reasons, it’s a reflection of how society is in reality. We see a lot more of these cases involving men. In that regard, it’s more of a reflection of society as we see it today, and I kept it that way.

After watching such a gruesome film, what do you hope the audience walks away with?

I’m not sure exactly what the audience might have felt, but some questions that came to my mind were, “Why do some people lead such normal lives and we see others lead such horrific and devilish lives? What went wrong in their lives to bring them to that point? What path am I on, and what direction am I taking?” I look back on my life and ask these questions. “What points in my life was I at a dangerous point, and how did I overcome that?” These questions are what I hope some of the audience members will ask because the main character came to a point in his life where he obviously could have gone in a different direction. If the audience can ask that, then I would want nothing more from them. I hope that as they leave the theater, they can really think about and value the peace and the blessings that they have now.

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