Is relentless violence onscreen justified?
By Lee Hyo-won
"I Saw the Devil" was finally released in theaters Thursday after several painful raps by the Korea Media Ratings Board (KMRB) for, among other things, serial killers with a knack for mutilating bodies and a taste for human flesh.
Director Kim Ji-woon argues that reality is often stranger than fiction, and that the nauseating cruelty depicted in his latest thriller can never quite catch up with real life, especially with the KMRB chopping off a good seven minutes of the film. "It's like sushi with a little less wasabi. The savory texture of the fish is still there but with a little less tang", Kim told reporters about the censored version of "I Saw the Devil", Wednesday in Seoul.
While subtle hints of "Hannibal-esque" cannibalism remain, explicit depictions of handling human body parts like pork chops are gone. And yet, even the lead actor Lee Byeong-Heon said the film is "still smothered with plenty of wasabi", and indeed, the film offers some of the most grotesque images that will be difficult to erase.
Lee stars as an intelligence agent whose fiancee is killed by a psychopathic serial killer (Choi Min-sik). Blinded by sorrow and burning vengeance, he sets out to not only kill but slowly torture the culprit.
Can relentless violence on film be justified? The director and cast of "Devil" say yes.
"If someone watches my movie and actually tries copying the violent acts, I believe that person would have acted aggressively with or without my film. I think it's important to take preventive measures to restrain such aggressors before anything happens in the first place", said Kim.
Choi, the antihero of "Old Boy" who has already played a ruthless killer in "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance", agrees. "Ethics in different forms of cultural content, from films to novels, always become an issue. But I agree with the director. We are addicted to all sorts of violence, from verbal to political, and we sometimes become immune to it all", he said.
The actor said that films allow people to look at violence from a critical view, thereby giving way to a mature arena for discussion and debate. "I once saw 'The Antichrist' in Italy and it was really bloody. I never close my eyes during a movie but I had to two or three times for this one. Some people were clapping while others swore vehemently, and it was wonderful to see them debating afterward".
Maryanne Redpath, director of the Berlin Film Festival's Generation section, previously told The Korea Times that she includes films with more mature, explicit content or themes in the teenager's section. This is for the purpose of challenging adolescents to think critically and converse.
Choi's co-star furthermore stressed that the drama, rather than the gore, propels the narrative. "The Good, the Bad, the Weird" director seems to have brainstormed ways to shock the audience with realistic depictions of inhumane savagery, along the lines of axing vulnerable young women, but the film also focuses on the spiritual transformation — or degeneration — of the protagonist as he mercilessly hunts down the murderer. But Lee's character starts drowning in his newfound instinct for violence he gazes too long into the abyss — just as Nietzsche once said, "He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster".
"It's a problem when someone justifies violence or starts thinking it's OK because everyone else does it. This can be witnessed in our everyday lives, like the jaded Internet community", said Lee.
The film does leave room for discussing the nature and depiction of violence once — or if — the viewer recovers from the shock factor.