I Saw the Devil (Akmareul boatda) (2010)

So this movie is from Korea (the good one) and during the lovely opening title sequence I noticed that every name was made up of three monosyllabic parts: Min-sik Choi, Ho-jin Cheon, Gook-hwan Jeon, etc. That last one seems a little racist but okay.

It got me wondering if that format was a firm rule and, if so, where it came from. Turns out, it’s not the only allowable Korean naming style but it is by far the most common. In fact, there are only about a dozen Korean names that have more than one syllable. You know what really blew my mind? While there are about 250 surnames in use in both Koreas, almost half the population is named either Kim, Lee or Park. That is fucking insane. You would never meet someone with the same last name as someone you knew and ask “Any relation to…?” That would be like saying, “You are female. My friend is also female. Are you related?”

In the U.S., our three most common names are Smith, Johnson, and Williams. (Suck it, Jones!) Those three combined account for around 2.5% of the population. Could you imagine if one in every six people you met was named Smith? We live in a pretty diverse land here. Over in Korea, they live in the Matrix.

You’re gonna have to look at me. Otherwise the title would be kind of misleading.

The story: Those lovely opening credits take us for a drive down a dark, snowy road, as seen from the driver’s point of view. He comes upon a stopped vehicle, in which a pretty young woman waits for a tow truck as the snowflakes silently fall in the lamplight around her. The driver of the van we followed from the beginning walks up to her window and offers to fix her flat tire. She turns down his help, perhaps sensing something amiss in his insistence. Sure enough, moments later he’s crashing through her window and pounding her skull with a wrench. Watching this is…unpleasant. In the aftermath of the horrific attack, the victim’s fiancé, who happens to be a secret service agent, sets about tracking down the culprit. The hunt will cost both men more than they imagine.

The blood on my face makes me sad.

Biggest letdown: Possibly the letdown is that our hero’s blank expression doesn’t give us a clear enough window to his thoughts to empathize with his obsession. He’s cold and businesslike most times, which is great for a mindless action hero but difficult to relate to in a more conflicted figure. From the start the battle feels so lopsided, it’s hard to really root for him. You want him to win, because the man he’s after needs to get got. But because victory seems assured for so long, you don’t really feel right cheering the hunter. It’s certainly an interesting choice but it makes the entire second act emotionally flat, even though it is often quite disturbing. Eventually the dramatic tension is restored, but it takes so long you might have lost interest by that point.

Look at it. Look at what you did to my car.

Why you should watch: I wonder who would win if all the Kims, Parks, and Lees formed gangs according to last name and fought to the death. No guns, martial arts only. Korean cinema has the absolute best fight choreography of any nation on the planet. The war of the surnames is a battle I would like to see.

Take that, you filthy Kim!

Not surprisingly, I Saw the Devil has some great action sequences, mostly variations on grieving husband kicking massive amounts of ass. The fights are fucking brutal too: cheeks ripped out, hands pinned to counters with screwdrivers, sliced Achilles tendons…BLECH. While no one would ever call this a horror movie, the graphic violence and nasty serial killer bits (apparently this area of Korea is crawling with mass murders) more than qualify it for this blog.

Can’t walk ten feet in this neighborhood without tripping over a dead body.

Yet for all that, perhaps the most unsettling element is the mad quest for vengeance.  The actual pursuit portion of I Saw the Devil, which would probably occupy the entire story in most western-made films, is wrapped up in the first act. I was pretty surprised when the hero caught up with the bad guy early on, thinking, “Okay, now what?” It turns out there are plenty of dark places left on the road ahead, and many of them reside in the hero’s conscience. He does some pretty awful things in his effort to fill the void in his life and he sees other, more awful things happen as a result. The only corollary to that kind of atypical plot balance would be something like No Country for Old Men. While I Saw the Devil isn’t nearly as good as No Country, it shares same disquieting sense that what lies ahead will be unfamiliar territory, certain only to be tragic.

At least I didn’t use a bolt gun.

Memorable Moment: I mentioned the opening scene, which is tough to watch. What I didn’t mention is the scene immediately following that one, which is even worse. I thought from the beginning I knew what the score was. The setup seemed concise and straightforward. But after the introductory assault, a neat little surprise made me realize I was wrong to make assumptions. The movie let me stew in that for all of 30 seconds, before absolutely tearing my heart out.

Choice quote: “Some bastard hammered his balls!” “Who broke your balls?”

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7 Responses to “I Saw the Devil (Akmareul boatda) (2010)”

  1. This new post is a little bit BS. I thought I was the only A. DiLeo but not only is there another, I AM related to him… Also, Park is a Korean last name? How have I missed 1/3 of 1/2 the population?

  2. I think I liked this movie better than Old Boy.

    • Whoa now, let’s not get crazy. But if you’re a Park Chan-wook fan, stick around. I think I smell a little more Korean cinema coming your way.

  3. […] caught my eye. I’m generally a fan of Park’s work (way better than anything those dirty Lees and Kims put out) but sometimes he rubs me the wrong way. JSA, for example, was a good movie; it just […]

  4. […] I Saw the Devil (Akmareul boatda) – South Korea totally stole the idea for this movie from Kim Jong-un, the greatest movie star ever born. […]

  5. […] I Saw the Devil (Akmareul boatda) […]

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