Originally written for The Terror Test podcast. Check out their new website. I am now writing Lost in Arhkam. Previous Test Prep essays.
Written for an episode in which the guys visited South Korea and discussed I Saw the Devil and The Host.
Revenge Is a Fist Best Served Boldly
Contains I Saw the Devil (2010) spoilers.
“This is certain, that a man that studieth revenge, keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal, and do well. Public revenges are for the most part fortunate; […]. But in private revenges, it is not so. Nay rather, vindictive persons live the life of witches; who, as they are mischievous, so end they infortunate.” ~ “On Revenge,” Sir Francis Bacon
Though I had read Hamlet, it was not until seeing Julie Taymor’s Titus (1999), an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Adronicus, that I became aware of revenge tragedy as a genre. Hands are chopped off, tongues ripped out, children cooked. It’s brutal. Often traced back to first century playwright Seneca, the revenge tragedy, or tragedy of blood, found a warm, wet place on the English Renaissance stage, with popular takes on the genre including Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy. And as I Saw the Devil shows, the tragedy of blood is still dripping across screens today.
Images of mutilation and gruesome death, with some sort of decapitation or dismemberment, are central conventions of revenge tragedy. In Shakespeare, you have the aforementioned Titus and its pounds of flesh. In I Saw the Devil, Kyung-chul, the psychopath, dismembers his victims and is eventually decapitated himself. Regardless of classification, the movie is sometimes called an action/thriller, I Saw delivers punishments worthy of a horror film, everything from blunt force trauma to slicing-and-dicing.
Often in revenge tragedies, several villains fight each other and the revenger. A tool villain is a minor character that helps begin these arguments. This position is partially taken by Tae-joo, the cannibal. Tae-joo may even be read as a comic form of the traditional Machiavellian figure, like Claudius in Hamlet. His home is expansive and expensive, nice rugs, plates, a huge banquet table, etc. While Machiavelli’s prince grinds up his enemies through statecraft, Tae-joo literally grinds them up, which also covers one of the other conventions: cannibalism..
I Saw the Devil even contains soliloquies. Tae-joo attempts to describe the satiety that only human flesh delivers. He waxes nostalgically about his college protest days. When Kyung-chul learns of the tracking and listening device that’s planted in him, he gives a speech, including threats and promises, directed to Soo-hyeon, the NIS agent tracking him, seeking revenge for the death of his pregnant fiancee.
The technology of the listening and tracking devices updates the ghost tradition in revenge tragedy. Traditionally, a ghost gives information to the protagonist, often to push him into revenge. The ghost of Hamlet’s father is a famous example. In I Saw the Devil, rather than a supernatural spur, Soo-hyeon relies on technological tracking devices, and while that seems like a leap to make, it actually isn’t in terms of horror films. For one, simply thinking of the position that technology and science have in our society. It’s often said that they have supplanted many superstitious beliefs, so it makes sense that a new revenger is urged on by newer means.
For another, ghosts and technology have been linked for more than a century. In “Skeletons Sail an Etheric Ocean: Approaching the Ghost in John Carpenter’s The Fog,” critic Murray Leeder traces the history of ghosts and technology. For example, just as telegraphs become used more, seances with “table rappings” begin. The table rappings echoed Morse code, the then current mode of technological communication. Technology, with the ability to trap sounds and images and transport them, also metaphorically separates the soul from the body. One way of approaching the horror film through the last forty years would be to trace the influence of technology on hauntings. The TV and Poltergeist. VHS technology and Ringu. Haunted emails, cell phones, the Facebook page or blog of the dead.
The fallout from revenge in the Renaissance seems obvious–death. Revenge has been a plot device in exploitation, horror, and action films, though the potential for psychological harm from it is less explored, especially in terms of action movies. I Saw the Devil goes further than most, but not as far as it could.
While Soo-hyeon is still standing at the end, he’s obviously devastated and his revenge devastates another family. While one convention isn’t upheld, that the revengers die, the characteristic of madness, is suggested by the ending. The protagonist may not be able to go on much further. We wonder what he has gained.
Even if we can’t dig too much internally, the exteriors of the film are often exquisite. Critical response seems unanimous about the style here, but it is split about the content. The film is often lauded for the acting and cinematography. My first reaction to I Saw the Devil was to its cinematography. It’s a beautifully shot film, particularly throughout the first act. Though the action is brutal, the opening shots of snow and blood and then blood and plastic are somehow all equally gorgeous. Many critics seem to see the movie as it develops as something prehistoric, maybe they don’t like the gore or action or maybe the notion of revenge in this fashion feels old.
Several critics have mentioned a lack of realism. Maybe this is really just the use of another convention of revenge tragedy: spectacle. The cat-and-mouse element of Soo-hyeon’s revenge hearkens to the convention of the play-within-a-play. In Hamlet, this is the performance of The Mousetrap, Hamlet’s version of The Murder of Gonzago, in which he hopes to catch his uncle by recreating the murder of King Hamlet. There is something even more about spectacle in Devil, sometimes more like Tom and Jerry. One scene in particular is Soo-hyeon’s “rescue” of Kyung-chul from the police. It echoes various action films, but with a deeper entanglement of what’s good or bad, right and wrong.
Despite some criticism for the story, the movie is on countless lists for must-see horror films and ultimately, it seems that the film is celebrated. So much so, a Hollywood remake is on the way. Whatever their faults, these stories of revenge still speak to us and as long as they do, there’s more blood to spill.