Thursday, 11 November 2010

London Korean Film Festival 2010: The Man From Nowhere and I Saw the Devil

Now in its fifth year, the London Korean Film Festival got underway last weekend in ambitious fashion; presenting two sold out Galas of prime-cuts from the country's pulp mainstream.  The Man From Nowhere and I Saw the Devil may not have broken new ground in terms of theme (a Korean movie about revenge, you say? How novel) but both provided ample gut tossing entertainment for those who like their vengeance served sizzling (bordering on overcooked).

On opening night we were offered Lee Jeong-beom’s second directorial outing, The Man From Nowhere. A slightly creepy set-up featuring the young daughter of a drug addled single mum and her secretive next door neighbour, gives rise to an increasingly barmy narrative involving organ harvesting and the Chinese mafia. Said mysterious man (a floppy haired Won Bin) searches for his cute protégé after she is taken by a criminal gang with designs on her corneas.

What was most fascinating about the experience was the much audible response of the young (and not so young) Korean women in the audience at the sight of Won Bin’s well-worked torso. As Nowhere is, by all reports, the highest grossing film in Korea so far this year, it would seem that they had little difficulty in appealing to a pan-gendered audience in a way that few blood-soaked actioners manage in the West.

I Saw the Devil was certainly the more philosophically rigorous of the two, with director Kim Ji Woon happily citing Nietzsche in his post screening Q and A. And whilst both films bore the mark of Park Chan Wook’s Vengeance trilogy, it was Devil that most satisfyingly continued Park’s questioning approach to life in a moral vacuum. The film plays out like a two hour plus live action episode of Tom and Jerry, imagined by Gaspar Noe. Rookie cop (Lee Byung-Hun) tracks down the maniacal sex killer (Mr Old Boy himself, Choi Min Sik) that did for his fiancée. But instead of polishing him off in one go, our hero chooses to maim and tag his cruel victim, before tracking him cross-country and taking the life out of him one chunk at a time. That plenty of innocent bystanders get sexually assaulted and/or brutally murdered in the interim is neither here nor there to our perversely absorbed protagonist.

Seen back-to-back, I Saw the Devil appears to be some sort of corrective to The Man From Nowhere’s wilful moral relativism. Not that Kim’s film doesn’t happily tap into the same dark recesses of our collective unconscious; and neither does it take its audience to task (Haneke style) for craving ever increasing depravity. Although semi-detached from its twin anti-heroes, the film offers enough extreme pleasures to satisfy the most sinew-greedy genre perverts the world over (and it takes one to know one). I Saw the Devil is beyond good and evil. But it is good.


As an addendum to previous posts, and to counter any notion that Korean cinema is exclusively obsessed with bloody revenge, I would like to mention Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry; a personal highlight from last month’s LFF (I saw his previous film, Secret Sunshine at the Korean festival a few years ago). Lee’s film rejects the pleasures of vengeance ingrained in the films above, and instead offers a low key, nuanced and infinitely subtle examination of a Grandmother’s acceptance of moral responsibility for her offspring’s hideous crime (just as hideous as those in Nowhere and Devil), as well as her own gradual mental decline (and nobody gets their eye gouged out). Conceptually daring and brilliantly realised, the film tackles complex philosophical themes in an honest and straight-forward manner that never once comes close to pretention.  Poetry is moving in a way that few films ever are.

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