Two new South Korean movies deepen my conviction that this country is producing some of the finest in the world. Furthermore, one of them, “Poetry”, is directed by Lee Chang-dong who I am now convinced should be grouped with the greatest directors of the past half-century, including Satyajit Ray, Ousmane Sembene and Akira Kurosawa. Given the names of these three directors, it should be obvious where my preferences lie. I have a deep love for films that display an affection and respect for the salt of the earth, especially when they reach the level of fine art.
While not quite ascending to this rarefied level, Kim Jee-woon’s “I Saw the Devil”, which opens on March 4th at the IFC Center in New York, is a roller coaster ride of a thriller that features two of Korea’s top actors in a cat-and-mouse revenge tale of the kind that Korean audiences dote on. Kim is a master of genre-bending, with a horror movie (A Tale of Two Sisters) and a “Western” (The Good, the Bad and the Weird) that takes place on the Mongolian steppes in the 1930s to his credit.
“I Saw the Devil” is a mixture of Hollywood serial killer movies, particularly those based on the Hannibal Lecter tales, and a genre that is unique to Korea in many ways, the revenge tale that was perfected by Park Chan-wook in his Vengeance Trilogy, of which “Oldboy” is the most popular installment.
Choi Min-sik, who was the tormented victim seeking revenge in “Oldboy”, plays Kyung-chul, the serial killer in “I Saw the Devil”. The husband of the woman he has killed in the opening moments becomes his relentless pursuer seeking revenge. When a search party turns up his wife’s severed head in the marshes not far from Kyung-chul’s home, Soo-hyun (played by Lee Byung-hyun, a star of “The Good, the Bad, and the Weird) vows to make the killer suffer just as much as his wife did in Kyung-chul’s torture chamber. Soo-hyun is surely capable of inflicting such punishment since he is an elite special agent of the Korean security forces. It turned out that Kyung-chul picked out the wrong person to kill.
Not only is Soo-hyun determined to track the killer down, he will not be satisfied by taking his life. Instead, after he finds and beats him into unconsciousness, he puts an electronic tracking device down his gullet that will allow him to follow his every step. When the spirit moves him, especially when Kyung-chul is about to take a new victim, Soo-hyun steps in and delivers a new round of beatings to the mystified serial killer. How does that guy keep finding me?
Director Kim Jee-woon proclaims deeper philosophical goals for his latest genre-bender, even quoting Nietzsche in the press notes: “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes into you.” But—thankfully—the film is much more about action than meditation. From the moment it starts until its macabre conclusion, this is an exciting, often darkly comic, movie that Hollywood is no longer capable of making.
If you are looking for an escapist joy-ride that will send shivers down your spine, then I can’t recommend “I Saw the Devil” highly enough.
Defying conventional expectations of how to write a lead character, director Lee Chang-dong’s screenplay revolves around Yang Mija, a 66-year-old woman living on a government pension and working as a part-time maid for an elderly male stroke victim. Not only is she not rich and powerful, she is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Imagine trying to sell such a script to the Hollywood studios that foisted “Inception” and “The Social Network” on us.
Mija cares for her teen-age grandson Wook, who returns her maternal care with one insult after another. His room is filthy and he expects to be waited on hand and foot by granny.
In the opening scene, young children playing by a nearby river spot a dead body floating toward them, a local high school girl who has committed suicide. After leaving a doctor’s office at the city hospital where she is first told that she might be senile, Mija spots the mother of the dead girl crying inconsolably near the ambulance that contains the body. When she returns home, she asks her grandson if he knew the girl. He shrugs his shoulders and says he does not, expressing no sorrow over the suicide of a classmate. He is obviously missing some basic human feelings.
A day or so later, Mija notices a flyer for a poetry workshop at a nearby adult learning center and decides to enroll in the class, even though the enrollment period is past. She tells the registrar that she might be good at poetry since she was supposedly saying “odd things” all the time when she was young. The class is one of the few places in her dreary suburban neighborhood that provides an escape from caring for her lout of a grandson and the elderly man who relies on her for his most basic needs, including baths, while verbally abusing her.
When she asks the instructor where an inspiration for a poem should come from, he tells her to look closely at objects in nature and try to see them for the first time and find words to express her wonder over them. Since she loves flowers, this does not seem impossible. She begins to carry around a notebook with her and finds words to describe camellias and other beautiful objects even though the word “bleach” has escaped her, as she confides to a doctor. She can only remember “Clorox”.
Some days later, a father of one of Wook’s high-school buddies shows up at Mija’s home and mysteriously tells her that she has to come with him to meet with four other fathers of members of Wook’s clique. They meet at a private room in a restaurant, where she is informed that 6 boys, including Wook, had been serially raping the girl whose body had been floating down the river in the opening scene. Their cruelty and her shame had made her decide to kill herself. But not all is lost, the men tell Mija. The girl’s mother has agreed to a pay-off. As long as the boys’ parents can come up with the cash, she won’t go to the cops. This presents Mija with a dilemma. A welfare recipient and a part-time maid, she would never be able to come up with her share.
There are elements of “Poetry” that can be found in earlier movies by Lee Chang-dong. Like his most recent Secret Sunshine, this is a tale about a woman suffering from a mental impairment in a small, conventionally minded if not stifling, provincial Korean city whose illness sets her apart from her neighbors. Also, like Peppermint Candy, it is a powerful indictment of sexism. With the fathers discussing the settlement as if their sons were in an automobile accident and toasting each other with bottles of beer once they learned that the girl’s mother had accepted, there is not much to distinguish them morally from their rapist sons. Indeed, it is implicit that they are accessories after the fact.
Yang Mija is a character of enormous complexity, even though she is what one might consider a most ordinary human being. As a symbol of the director’s worldview, her yearnings for another more aesthetic experience are in sharp, if not tragic, distinction from the confinements of a meager social existence. This is compounded by her status as an older woman suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Lee Chang-dong’s development of this character is a major accomplishment, ranking in some ways with the classic fiction of a Chekhov or a Tolstoy. Perhaps his prior career as a novelist gives him a leg up. In any case, he has a special genius for creating powerful drama out of the lives of people who live ostensibly undramatic lives.
In one of the most astonishing scenes, Mija visits the mother of the dead girl in order to convince her to accept the payoff. The mother, a farmer, is working in the nearby fields. When Mija approaches her, the sheer beauty of the mountains and the flowers that surround the fields overwhelm her and she forgets to bring up the topic that brought her there, a function no doubt of the Alzheimer’s as well. The poignancy of the exchange between the two women will linger with you after seeing the film, perhaps for decades.
Yoon Jeong-hee, who was born in 1944 and who was one of Korea’s top actresses in the 60s and 70s, plays Yang Mija. She came out of retirement to work with Lee Chang-dong in a film for the ages.
Usually, I don’t quote other film reviews here but I was struck by what the New York Times had to say. If you aren’t ready to accept the word of the Unrepentant Marxist, then at least be guided by the newspaper of record. It might get war and unemployment wrong, but on movies it can be reliable–some of the time.
Out of pain, Mija finds a way to see, really see the world, with its flowers, rustling trees, laughing people and cruelties, and in doing so turns reality into art, tragedy into the sublime. It’s an extraordinary transformation, one that emerges through seemingly unconnected narrative fragments, tenderly observed moments and a formal rigor that might go unnoticed. Yet everything pieces together in this heartbreaking film — motifs and actions in the opening are mirrored in the last scenes — including flowers, those that bewitch Mija outside the restaurant and those in a vase at the dead girl’s house. The river that flows in the opening shot streams through the last image too, less a circle than a continuum.
At one point, Mija asks her poetry teacher with almost comic innocence, “When does a ‘poetic inspiration’ come?” It doesn’t, he replies, you must beg for it. “Where must I go?” she persists. He says that she must wander around, seek it out, but that it’s there, right where she stands. In truth, there is poetry everywhere, including in those who pass through her life, at times invisibly, like the handicapped retiree (Kim Hira) she cares for part time, a husk of a man whom she will at last also see clearly. The question that she doesn’t ask is the why of art. She doesn’t have to because the film — itself an example of how art allows us to rise out of ourselves to feel for another through imaginative sympathy — answers that question beautifully.
“Poetry” is now playing at Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York and elsewhere around the country. It is not to be missed.