Q&A: Is Kim Ji-woon's 'Devil' too graphic?

'Devil' director talks about the challenges his latest film faced

"I Saw the Devil," a new crime thriller by the director Kim Ji-woon, is hard to swallow for those who are used to the director's style. The film starring a duo of top Korean actors – Lee Byung-hun ("G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra") and Choi Min-shik ("OldBoy") – is a patch-up of ax-wielding and flesh-eating scenes that are far from being sensual or elegant as seen in his previous films like "A Bittersweet Life" (2005) and "A Tale of Two Sisters" (2003), which was one of the country's widely-seen horror movies. Since opening in August, the gore thriller, a story of man and his revenge on a psychopath who killed his fiancee, much of the film's discussion has been focused on the expressions of violence and his choice of the gore genre. For a director who removed part of his film after being given a restricted rating by the Korea Media Rating Board twice, the film's response was an exhausting process for Kim. "I don't think it damaged the film's essence, but still you get to wonder 'why does it have to be my film?'" Nevertheless he's moving on. After competing in Toronto, he is already planned for making two other films, one of them an English remake of the 1970s French film "Max et les Ferrailleurs." Kim sat down with The Hollywood Reporter's Korea correspondent Park Soo-mee on a recent evening.

The Hollywood Reporter: What's the response of the film like in Korea?

Kim Ji-woon:
The divide is quite extreme. I can't say that I expected the film to be this controversial. It's a gore thriller, and the degree of expression is very strong. Even then, the audiences' reaction has been widely split. I think the film has been shut in a certain category after it was given a restricted rating. In a way I find that local media simplified the film's discourse. Also, I was disappointed about the board's decision to remove a certain section of the film. I don't think it has damaged the film's essence but still I don't know if it was necessary.

THR: Did you have a particular interest in gore thriller?

Ji-woon: I've always done films with a strong sense of genre from horror in "A Tale of Two Sisters" to "The Foul King" which had a particular humor code, and "The Good, the Bad, the Weird," a kimchi western. I always think of ways to express the film in the most fitting genre whenever I'm given a script. That's my mission. "I Saw the Devil" is a story of fierce revenge, which is why I decided to explore with a gore thriller. I think some audiences were taken aback by the film because it was dry and didn't have the sentimental values in such films as "A Bittersweet Life."

THR: I was personally disappointed with Choi Min-sik's performance in the film. For some reason I didn't feel that he had pushed beyond his limit. His role was too simplistic and lacked layers. How did you want to portray his role in this film?

Ji-woon: My expectation was to show the side of devil in a man as lively as possible. Choi is so gentle in real person. He doesn't even swear on the set. Maybe because of that there are subtle moments in this film where you find his position quite ambivalent like through his gaze at the victims and his appearance from the back. As a director, I was happy to see his character transform on the set. Also it's hard enough to show a devil like a real devil.

THR: Did you have in mind your cult following when you shot this film?

Ji-woon: I suppose, but then I never had a steady fan who endorsed all of my films. Except "The Good, the Bad, the Weird," I think the fans for my films were almost grouped into certain categories. For example, some people would love "Bittersweet Life" and "Foul King" but hate "Tale of Two Sisters." Similarly, those who hated "The Good, the Bad, the Wierd" gave a generous review of "I Saw the Devil" and for others, it was vise-versa.

THR: So what about the depictions of violence?

Ji-woon: I wanted the audiences to feel the pain of the victims of violence, and I wanted to push the limit to make that more explicit and intense. The violence itself is stronger in films like "A Serbian Film" and even "Silence of the Lambs" and "Sin City," where you also see carnivorism. But certain depictions of violence are treated as a trend in some films. I think that was one of the issues I had when I was filming "I Saw the Devil." As a result, the audiences found the film difficult because they were unfamiliar with the approach to the violence that was portrayed in this film.

THR: What does this film mean to you and your career as a professional filmmaker?

Ji-woon: It is one of my films, and a state heading for a better film. On a side note, I am more aware of the pressures to make "a well-made" commercial film. The environment of filmmaking in Korea is more difficult now than it was five years ago. I think it has to do with the market trend that some Korean films started {by} breaking more than 10 million admissions. Producers and investors are less generous for directors to pursue their personal style in the films, and there's increasing expectation for "an objectively well-made film" that can reach a large audience. It was different in the '90s. Directors had more freedom to experiment with their style.

THR: The film ends on a perplexing note. How should the audiences take it?

Ji-woon: I expected more people to comment on the ending. Whether it was the right way of revenge, I can't really say. But I wanted to depict a devil through the process of revenge. You would think that by revenge a person can save himself from the pain. But revenge is ultimately a way to destruction. You can't possibly take revenge on someone without ruining yourself. For those who think that they can, it's a lie.

THR: Do you ever dream of shooting romance or romantic comedy?

Ji-woon: I don't think I'll ever shoot a romantic comedy although I quite enjoyed films like "Notting Hill" and "Bridget Jones's Diary." These are Hollywood films that have been shot under best possible conditions. So while they're cliche, it's still good. As far as romance, I am interested in shooting a sad melodrama of some sort someday.
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