The Genre Regenerator
Kim Jee-woon wants to try it all
In darkness there is profound beauty, and no other living director commingles the two like South Korea's Kim Jee-woon. His newest, the harrowing, borderline Jungian I Saw the Devil, exhumes tropes from the clichéd casket of the Hollywood serial killer genre and reanimates the form. It's this decade's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, brutal and bloodthirsty but posing questions: Where is the diabolical line between man and monster, and what is the true price of vengeance?
This isn't exactly new psychodramatic territory for Asian filmmakers, but Kim, who came to international attention with his atmospheric shocker A Tale of Two Sisters, has never been content to let genre clichés stand in his way; he savages them with rapturous glee, and in the process has crafted some of the finest genre updates in years.
It's probably not even fair to refer to his filmography as "genre" cinema per se. Starting with 2003's eerie, enveloping A Tale of Two Sisters and moving from there to gut-wreching crime story A Bittersweet Life and 2008's frantically comic reimagining of a spaghetti Western, The Good, the Bad, the Weird, Kim's oeuvre obliterates the pillars of whatever genre he happens to be subverting at the time while simultaneously paying giddy, gory homage to his cinematic forebears. He's got style to burn, too. I Saw the Devil will almost certainly be the most elegantly lensed meditation on the banality of pure evil you'll see this year. Cinematographer Mogae Lee manages to make even the most innocent of images – snow falling on picturesque rural countrysides, for example – seem indelicately poised between beauty and bestiality. And Choi Min-sik, best known for his devastating performance in Park Chan-wook's instant classic Oldboy, only adds to the audience's mental malaise: How can someone so obviously, irritatingly ordinary stand revealed as such a horrific societal malady? At the very least, you'll never look at public bus drivers the same way again.
Last month, the Chronicle spoke with Kim (via interpreter) on the eve of I Saw the Devil's stateside release.
Austin Chronicle: Is it just me, or are you slowly working your way through every single film genre there is? Was that your plan from the start, or is that just indicative of your passion for genre films?
Kim Jee-woon: From the very beginning, I set out to re-create the [various genres], and at one point in my life, I thought I would do all the genres that were ever in the world. Usually, however, what happens is that when I'm working on my next project, I discover something that I think is lacking in my current project. Whatever it is that I thirst for in my current project tends to turn up in my following project.
For example, A Bittersweet Life was an inward-looking film that focused almost entirely on that central character [of Lee Byung-hyun's icy gang underling]. For my next film, I wanted to try something that was a bit bigger, a bit more extravagant, and more outward-looking, and so I did The Good, the Bad, the Weird. Since that film focused so much on action and spectacle and those vast Western plains, I wanted [I Saw the Devil] to be much more tightly plotted, dense, and very well-thought-out and planned. I think my tendency when working is to try and find what's lacking in my current project and then tackle that in whatever I do next.
AC: Your films are so painstakingly crafted and gorgeously lensed that it's hard to imagine anything lacking in any of them.
Kim: I work from opposites to opposites, in a way. It's finding one thing and then doing the other from film to film. So maybe after I Saw the Devil I might do something like I Saw the Angel or perhaps something warm and happy.
AC: A Kim Jee-woon family film? That we have to see.
Kim: I've been thinking of doing a sci-fi thriller or a sci-fi noir, if that's possible.
AC: Were you influenced by American genre films in your youth?
Kim: Oh yes, absolutely. But I was most interested in the new American cinema of the Seventies. Directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and that whole golden age of American cinema, which was, in its own way, comprised of genre films. In another way, I was also influenced by what I call the "upperclassmen," such as John Cassavetes. In filmmaking today, I'm interested in those filmmakers who can take on the Seventies and Eighties' golden age and refashion it for themselves. People like David Fincher, the Coen brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson, they're all very interesting to me.
AC: What is it that makes a Kim Jee-woon film? Despite the multiple genres you embrace, there's no mistaking your singular touch.
Kim: What can possibly be the common factor in a Kim Jee-woon film? I think what really ties a lot of my projects together is that there is always a character that believes his life is not exactly the way he wishes it to be. My regard for that character turns out to be a very sympathetic one. What does it mean when this person is unable to get what they truly desire? In my films I try to discover the answer to that question, and from there I can determine what direction the film will take. We all desire things that we believe we cannot have, and so my films reflect that, again and again. The mystery must be solved, the goal attained.
I Saw the Devil opens in Austin this Friday. See Film Listings for showtimes and review.