Garnering raves in its long festival run throughout North America and Europe, acclaimed Korean director Kim Ji-woon’s I Saw the Devil (review) takes the serial killer sub-genre and spins it on its head, with its story of a vengeful secret agent who turns the tables on the brutal psychopath who murdered his wife. Be sure to catch this fantastic, no-holds-barred film, featuring breathtaking action sequences and potent turns by actors Lee Byung-hyun and Choi Min-sik, in limited theaters this Friday, March 4th.
B-D’s Chris Eggertsen recently hopped on the phone with Kim to discuss the forced edit of ‘Devil’ by the Korean ratings board, balancing the horror with surprising moments of (very black) comedy in the film, and whether he’d get behind an American remake. Also…do I sense a little competitiveness between himself and fellow Korean director Park Chan-wook? Decide for yourself inside.
Beginning with the horror/comedy Choyonghan kajok (The Quiet Family) in 1998, Korean director Kim Ji-woon directed three feature films (as well as a segment of the anthology Three Extremes II) in his native country before gaining international recognition with the horror/mystery A Tale of Two Sisters in 2003 (which was remade into the awful American film The Uninvited in 2009). Following that, he directed both crime thriller A Bittersweet Life and action/western mash-up The Good, the Bad, and the Weird before returning to horror with the upcoming serial killer revenge film I Saw the Devil, a superb exercise in chaos that boasts the director’s now-trademark stylistic flourishes. Answering my questions via translator, Kim described the insanely violent film’s censorship problems in Korea (I guess cannibalism is an issue for them over there), how he filmed a brutal double murder sequence in a “moving” cab, and what his thoughts are on remaking foreign films for English-speaking audiences.
Kim Ji-woon: There was a U.S. film that I was supposed to be doing, but it got delayed for about a year, and while I was seeing what could be done in the meantime, Min-sik Choi, the serial killer in this movie, brought the script to me saying that there was a very good script that I might want to take a look at. And I read it, and it was a very powerful, very raw story, and it was a challenge that I was eager to take on.
What interested me about the script was that even thought it was about revenge, it was dealing with revenge in a different way than previous vengeance films I had dealt with. There was new ideas in it that I was interested to take on.
BD: I’d heard that you were forced to edit the film in order to release it in Korea. What parts of the film had to be cut?
KJW: There were a few scenes that were especially problematic for the Korean ratings. The scenes of cannibalism, where they’re eating human meat, was another problem. Scenes where we were showing severed limbs by themselves, and cut off body parts. In the international version, we have…when [Kyung-Chul] Achilles heel gets cut off. In the Korean version, the camera cuts away the moment the knife cuts into the Achilles heel. You don’t see any more than that. So those scenes were especially problematic in Korea…
The degree of expression, or the degree of the gore, I guess, was what I thought followed and referenced a lot of…at a similar level to what [had been] previously done in Korean films. But I think what happened was that a lot of the people responsible were kind of prematurely afraid of what they were going to see before they got to see it. So there was a kind of pre-reaction to what was possible in this film. And maybe it was a stroke of bad luck that I got stuck with that.
BD: I really loved the film. It’s incredibly brutal, but there’s also a level of black comedy in the movie, and you ended up balancing those two elements together really well. How much of a challenge was it to achieve that balance?
KJW: I think elements of horror and of shock and surprise that are common in horror films, and the element of comedy or making someone laugh…[are] not that different, because they both work on levels of surprise and the unexpected. When something funny happens, it’s usually unexpected. And when something shocking or surprising happens in horror, it’s also unexpected. I think they operate on a similar kind of level there. They’re not too distinctly different from their inspiration point.
I think it’s interesting when we’re able to combine and use these different aspects in a film. Also because our real lives…are never completely just serious and dark. They have their moments of irony and unexpectedness that happen in everyday life. That’s true to life. As long as these kinds of moments are not too out of place…I think it’s possible to have these scenes in a dark film like this as well.
What’s also interesting is that I can combine a very beautiful, a very pleasing scene, but yet still be able to give some kind of uniquely strange or uncomfortable [twist] to it. And [because] I like to…incite those reactions in people when I’m making films…elements like that show up in [the] films [themselves] as well.
BD: There are some incredible action sequences in the movie. I couldn’t even believe you’d pulled some of these shots off. I’m thinking in particular of the stabbing scene in the cab. How did you pull that specific scene off?
KJW: The external shots were shot previously, and we composited those in. So the backgrounds of the [scene] were shot and composited later…but the interior shots of the cab were shot in a studio. What we did was we took the body of a taxicab, cut off the top of it, replaced it with panels that were acrylic so that you could see through the taxi to the interior, and we spun that taxi contraption around. And we had the camera moving back and forth out of frame, in and out, and we had the taxi spinning physically in there as well.
But what was interesting was that we had costumes prepared for that scene, obviously because there’s so much blood spilling out in that scene, we had to change the costumes into new ones each time. We changed costumes about three times, but for the fourth time, because we didn’t have multiple copies of the clothing, we had to actually quickly wash one set of clothes. And even though it wasn’t completely dry, we had to put those on and shoot it again for a fourth time. And it was the fourth[ take when]…we had that scene down.
BD: The film is being compared to the work of Chan-wook Park, specifically the ‘Vengeance’ trilogy. What is your relationship with him, if any?
KJW: The ‘Vengeance’ trilogy is obviously a very well-known series of movies, but I think I [direct] a little more [with] regard to genre, and work in that sense a lot more than director Park does. I think what was funny and interesting [was] to see some of the internet comments about my film. They were very divided. Some would say that this was the best film of my career, and others would come back and say that it was my worst. They were very divided about that.
Also, one of the interesting, funnier comments I’ve seen was that after my film, they came to realize how much they hated director Park’s films and the ‘Vengeance’ trilogy. That was an interesting comment that I came across as well. But I do think that I function a little more in the aspects of genre and what that means…as well.
BD: Are you a fan of any American horror films or directors, and do you end up borrowing elements from any of them?
KJW: It’s not that I particularly like gore films more than other films, but rather, I’m more interested in the thrillers and the noirs that are able to incorporate very well the aspects of a gore film. I think examples such as the Coen Bros., or David Fincher especially do this very well…I do like their work as well in that regard.
BD: Your film ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’ was remade as ‘The Uninvited’ in the U.S. I was wondering how you felt about the American version and whether you would get behind an American remake of ‘I Saw the Devil’.
KJW: I think the challenge of a remake is trying to portray and transfer the original nuance. And I think having to dissect that and expand it in a new way for a remake is really one of the problems of making a remake of any kind of foreign film. Unrelated to how successful or how good the film was, I think being able to transfer and portray those kinds of nuances…[is difficult].
That’s why I hear stories like ‘Let the Right One In’ being remade for American audiences, and while the original was very unique and was able to have this kind of very unique mood about it, for some reason things didn’t transfer so well when they were remade for an American audience, and the American film didn’t do so well. I think it’s similar to how there are certain things that are much more difficult to transfer across cultures and across languages.
I think if ‘I Saw the Devil’ was remade into another version, I think it would be interesting to see some point where the killer plans his counter-attack…[to have his] counter-attack [be] a little bit more plotted and a little bit more thoughtful [of a] counter-attack to the cop character. I think that would be interesting to see. A…brainier progression of events and a progression of counter-attacks in the film. That would be a very interesting thing for a possible remake.
BD: Given that you have that other take on it which you just described, is a remake something you’d be interested in directing yourself if the opportunity arose?
KJW: I’d have to see the adaptation of the script, I guess, and make the decision. But if they did go in that kind of direction, it would be an interesting experience for American or international actors and actresses, and give a new kind of twist to the original script. To work on something like that would certainly be interesting.
BD: What’s your next project?
KJW: Nothing is completely decided yet, but I have submitted an adaptation to a studio and a production company, and I’m awaiting their response on it right now.
BD: Is that a horror or thriller type film?
KJW: It’s an action movie.
BD: Is that the American film you’d mentioned before?
KJW: The previous film I talked about, the production that was delayed, was an adaptation of a French film called ‘Max and the Junkman’. The one I just told you about now that I submitted the adaptation for, is a completely new project.
BD: Is there a title for that one?
KJW: ‘The Last Stand’.
BD: And that’s a Korean film?
KJW: No, it’s a Hollywood production.
BD: Great. Well thanks so much for getting on the phone with me, I really appreciate it. And I love the movie. It’s a great film.
KJW: Thank you very much.