Doppelganger follows research scientist Hayasaki (Koji Yakusho) encountering an exact double whose true intention he’s uncertain off. A title like Doppelganger leaves little to the imagination if this was a horror movie. Doing things you would expect a horror movie to do like setting up the rumor if you see a your doppelganger you’ll die, and the doppelganger having devious intentions. Having the classical scenes where the doppelganger causes trouble, and the original taking the blame for his double misdeeds. Such scenes are typical for stories of this nature before revealing it’s true intention to use doppelganger as a metaphor. Using the doppelganger to have characters do some soul searching over building up scares. Opting more for a psychological, and black comedy approach turning a otherwise mundane story into a more interesting, but very messy movie.
One twist to the doppelganger concept is bluntly stating that people who see their doppleganger regularly kill themselves being unable to accept a physical manestification of everything they wish to be. There’s Yuka (Hiromi Nagasaku) who expresses a dislike for her brother doppelganger despite him being everything she wanted her brother to be. Instead of building the movie around these kind of ideas they just remain interesting points to think about. Missing out on the opportunity to create more dynamic characters than just our protagonist. Hayasaki, and his doppelganger regularly bicker with each other revealing bits about Hayasaki as a person. There’s nothing subtle about what you’re meant to take away from the conversations when things are bluntly laid out. For instance, Hayasaki doppelganger telling Hayasaki his flaws, and how he should simply embrace his darker aspect. Leaving little to imagination to work out it themes.
Same thing applies with characters in the movie. Hayasaki assistants in the first half get replace by new characters he barely meets in the second half. A pointless choice since these new characters in the second half basically act the same as Hayasaki assistants in the first half. Their roles are simple from being the love interest to the greedy assistant who wants more recognition, and profit. The third act in particular goes from subtle character development into being more blunt caricatures of their personalities. While the transformation of the main characters are subtle what is not laid out as subtly is how they changed, especially when some dialogue just plainly explain a lesson they learned.
As for the doppelgangers the film is not interested in discussing their origin. As mentioned before they’re simply use as a metaphor. Much like the invention of the Artificial Body (more accurately mechanical chair with arms) Hayasaki must accept, and move on from his own limitations. There conversations about hinting at the group, or the machine oppressing the individual, but these ideas aren’t fleshed out as clearly. Hayasaki spends over half of the movie away from any oppressing outside force. By removing his own shackles the outside forces don’t bother him until the third act. The company Hayasaki formerly worked for just lets him be with basically no qualms about their professional relationship. Making any commentary it has to say about the shackles in society just seem vaguely there, but not realized.
On the comedy side of things it’s hit or miss. The humor is typically deadpan with jokes spread out sparsely throughout the movie. Like a moment where Hayasaki is trying to get his Artificial Body, an assistant asks if she could help him, Hayasaki says yes she can, and lets her do all the work. Generally I ended up wondering if something was meant to be a joke, or taken seriously since both type of scenes are given the same treatment. The final act of the movie is where it takes a turn for the ridiculous. For instance, Hayasaki, and Yuka being able to keep up pace with speeding van that gets stolen from them. Another goofy moment is Hayasaki somehow surviving getting run over by a van. This is also where most of the lingering plot points are finally resolved, and sadly it’s also in the most spoonfed way it could think off. Once it finally gets to the ending the whole journey feels oddly satisfying despite the occasional clumsiness.
The main reason I checked out this movie is none other than the man himself Koji Yakusho. His performance in Doppelganger proves to me once again he’s true talent to keep an eye out for. Playing two different characters with different personality is not a difficult task. What is difficult is portraying a subtle change in those two characters in a way where it confuses the viewer on whether or not they’re following Hayasaki, or the double. By slowly changing the direction of both the characters he portrayed he’s able to send the viewer for a loop. Most of the film he’s mostly subdue in his shyness, and on the other hand also confident, and free spirited. Further making it difficult to distinguish who he’s portraying exactly in any given scene, and in a positive way no less.
With two Koji Yakusho on screen the trickery to getting this done is pretty simple. Through the uses of green screen, CGI, and body double this task is accomplished. Given it’s relatively low budget it’s odd thinking a film that’s very simplistic required a lot of special effect work for around half of it. There’s nothing impressive about the special effects work in the movie, but considering I was surprise to learn it even had any special effect work done means it’ll probably unnoticed for other who see it. Kiyoshi Kurosawa writer/director attempts to give the film style in a few scenes. Most of the time it’s simply a wide shot of actors talking, but whenever there’s two Koji Yakusho on screen he’ll use a split screen effect to throw viewer off on who is who. This split screen effect it the most visually interesting it gets since it’s the only times Kurosawa tries to be visually bold in any form.
The other actors in the movie do fine in their roles. Hiromi Nagasaki gets a decent size role without complexity in her character. She’s unsure for half of the movie, and the other half she remains optimistic. Akira Emoto who doesn’t appear much in the movie playing Yakusho best friend provides Yakusho best onscreen chemistry. Whenever Emoto, and Yakusho share a scene a lot of their characters history gets vividly just through their performance. Yusuke Santamaria plays his part like a slacker until the final act where his performance is mildly crazy. Becoming more eccentric in his delivery resulting to a silly character being made. As for the rest of the small cast, that’s about it since actors in the first half are forgotten about. With this small cast it’s a good thing they’re good actors because they help make even the uneventful portions feel important.
Doppelganger is an odd film with interesting ideas, hit or miss humor, and a messy execution. All the ideas are here to create something with more depth than it ended up doing. Thankfully, Koji Yakusho performance makes the writing shortcomings easier to forgive thanks to his subtle performance in changing his persona is done flawlessly. It won’t leave you pondering on its themes, and ideas as much as writer/director Kiyoshi Kurosawa would like, but if you’re looking for a different take on the doppelganger types of story this one will entertain, and provide some mild intrigue in it themes.
When it comes to science-fiction very few films can ever surpassed the sheer stupidity that was Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) which I consider the dumbest science fiction film I’ve ever seen. I prefer sci-fi films that try to explore complex ideas about human nature over space epic. With this in mind I also understand science-fiction, like all genres, can be molded into what the storyteller so desire. So not every sci-fi is going to be smart, even though smart writing is what I typically look for in sci-fi. Annihilation ditches the advance technology in favor of being a hard sci-fi film with elements of psychological horror, and mystery thrown in. Resulting in a movie that has something to say, but doesn’t know to say it, nor combine all of its different elements into a single working piece.
Annihilation follows Lena (Natalie Portman), and her team exploring a mysterious zone called the Shimmer that is ever expanding in order to seek answers. As far as science fiction movies goes there’s little in the way of advance technology to be found here. The movie certainly could have used some of that advance technology because you’ll have very little in that regard in the film’s writing. For starter, let’s start off with the fact the film is incapable of creating psychological horror with shallow characters. With the exception of Lena, everyone else who explores the Shimmer are clunkily developed in one exchange of dialogue. Having little to go on for these characters prevents there from being any tension building up. Lena who is fleshed out must face the more self destructive side of her personality in the few attempts the Shimmer makes to create things, and remind her of things she regrets in her past. Why the Shimmer does is not answered beyond it can refract DNA, and maybe read people’s subconscious, or mind. That last part is never confirmed. Instead of being mysterious you’ll be confused by why the story takes the direction it does.
Lena character is the only one in the movie that gets fleshed out properly, and it still finds a way to ruin that. She has a destructive behavior ruining her perfect looking marriage, and exploring Lena’s guilty conscious is the only thing the movie has to make anything compelling out of. Sadly, it’s all written, and expressed in a emotionless way devaluing any emotionally resonate this storyline could of had. The writing wants you to sympathize with her as a tragic character, and sadly it doesn’t work when everything is portrayed in a cold, disinterested manner. Detaching the emotion from the idea so to speak.
I’m willing to suspend my disbelief in movies, but the internal logic has to function properly either by the genre it’s most bound by, or the logic within the world it takes place in. Already having establish the world mostly resemble ours lets go over the major oversights. Starting with the obvious if its establish every team who explore the Shimmer has died with the only person to have return coughing up blood, and now quarantine. You would think with this ever expanding mysterious field taking the lives of several trained military personnel that the government would make sure nothing from the Shimmer makes its way into any public area! On top of that, the military evacuated the public from this area under the pretense of a chemical spill. Within three years no one in Maryland (where Blackwater National Park is located) suspected there was something fishy going on. Everyone just believes it’s a chemical spill.
The biggest oversight is something that shouldn’t have been overlooked in the first place. So when the only survivor from the Shimmer is placed in a quarantined area, and people wearing hazmat suit implies that survivor is contagious. Except when Lena (and possibly dozens of other) team goes to explore inside the Shimmer without any sort of protection. More questionable is the survivor made it into a public area so who knows how many people the survivor possibly infected. Maybe none since the movie is very selective on how science works. It’s almost as baffling as not having military trained personals besides Lena joining her team of scientists. With the stated gravity of this Shimmer expanding, and possibly destroying life the government sure are some serious cheapskates, or this military just have people who are complacent about all life possibly being killed by this ever expanding mysterious field!
Once the team actually gets inside the Shimmer it’s even slower moving than it was before. The opening sequence does the Shimmer investigation a disservice by revealing who survives, and briefly establishing the fate of the other team members. With that in mind you’ll just be waiting for them to slowly get killed off. There’s a scene at a military base at night time, and all the characters are taking turns guarding the team sleeping in the lookout tower. They decide to have someone on guard hundreds of feet away from the lookout tower they are sleeping in. With a stairway leading up to the sleeping team members being unprotected they intentionally placed themselves in even more danger for no reason. They have night vision goggles, and a lookout tower that’ll give them a broader view of the area if they guard the stairway. I would worry about them, but when they can’t see a giant mutated bear point blank in front them is about the point I gave up on them! Granted this happens at night time; however, the person who gets attacked is right next to the other members of the team when she gets attacked by a giant mutated bear. Oh yeah, can’t forget to mention everyone on Lena’s team we follow are some sort of scientists. I can’t buy into that when they’re hardly seen taking notes insider the shimmer.
Without spoiling any specifics the climax resolution is sure to make your IQ drop to double digits. This is because of how easily the Shimmer itself, and everything it created gets destroyed in the film. Making it laughable that the first teams who explored the Shimmer when it was just in inside the lighthouse didn’t bother using any sort of flammable weapons to destroy it. Then comes the ending which takes it sweet time getting too. The climax which takes place in the lighthouse where the Shimmer originated goes on for too long. All that happens is Lena gets some vague answers leading to a name drop, a grenade like weapon pin gets pulled, and conflict resolved. This all takes longer than it should play out. Padding the sequence by having Lena slowly move around the lighthouse. Once the final shot of the movie cut to black I stopped caring about the fate of humanity in this film. If it was that easy for them to eliminate the threat, and the fact these stupid characters are the ones that did it is quite the feat it pulled off in dumb writing.
Annihilation is written, and directed by Alex Garland. I already bashed his poor writing skills on the story front, but as a director he doesn’t know how to give his actors good direction. The only one who manages to pull of anything well is Natalie Portman. She takes a broken character, and subtly displays constant self doubt in her. When she sounds detach speaking about herself, or her husband it come off naturally for the character to be speaking that way. Her co-stars on the other hand have a leash around them preventing them from showing too much emotions. Jennifer Jason Leigh suffers the most from this looking bored in several scenes. Garland, for some reason, wrote her a character who doesn’t display much emotion in the first place. So when Jennifer Leight is suppose to start losing it she acts no differently from when she was sane. The muted colors don’t help either, but having everything be so detached from emotion when you’re attempting to be psychological is counter intuitive.
So without expressive actors the only other way Alex Garland tries to keep his audiences awake are through the brief moments of blood, and gore. One scene involving Oscar Isaac cutting through a soldier stomach with a knife has some convincing practical effects. It then gets ruined by fake looking CGI intestines. In general, the special effects are pretty good, especially the gore. There’s also another scene where a mutated bear attacks our tied up team in a house. The audio is so badly distorted that Garland to advise his actor to spell it out for the audience one of the team members mutated. Not only that, but this sequence involving the mutated team member in a house is pretty lame. When all it takes is a single clip from automatic gun to the head to kill a mutated bear how is there supposed to be tension. If the Shimmer distorts DNA, and this is the worse in terms of dangerous distorted lifeforms the team is going to be alright.
Annihilation is a hallow film detached from anything resembling human empathy. Attempting to have a broad psychological scope gets derails quickly through stupid writing, dumb characters, and a disinterested visionary. When you write a scene involving a team of scientists traveling by boat through a swamp after being attacked by a mutated alligator, you need to go back to the drawing board, and spend time tweaking around with simple logic before tackling anything complex. Alex Garland had good ideas, and a good cast to pull off something good, but it’s all goes to waste in this misfire effort.
Boxing Helena (1993) is an extremely divisive film with very little discussion surrounding it. In the realm of controversial films such titles like I Spit On Your Graves (1978), Cannibal Holocaust (1980), Natural Born Killers (1994), A Clockwork Orange (1971), and other such films draw plenty of film lovers (and sometime an uninformed outsider) sharing conflicting viewpoints, and sometime ideology gets thrown into the fold. These are the kind of films that make you ask if a film can go too far. Obviously the answer is yes they can go too far. I draw this conclusion with my experience with the 2012 Ron Morales film’s Graceland which briefly had full frontal nudity of minors. However, such cases are extremely rare as I go years without even thinking a film has gone too far with its material. You might be wondering where exactly Boxing Helena stands in terms of controversy? If we’re purely talking about the content in the film than it’s nothing special. It’s simply an experimental indie film that went to the mainstream public with a traditional Hollywood studio treatment resulting in extreme divided reaction towards the film.
Boxing Helena tells the story of an Atlanta surgeon Nick Cavanaugh (played by Julian Sands) dangerous obsession with Helena (played by Sherilyn Fenn), a woman he had a one night stand with. This is the kind of film where knowing specific parts of the story will spoil the experience on first time viewing. That sounds like a no brainer, but you’ll be amazed how many reviews for Boxing Helena from paid professionals, and amateur reviewers online basically give away 42 minutes worth material. This plot point is usually given away in synopsis (if the review has one) when the film is reviewed. That’s not even including the possible hundreds of film sites that also give away a major plot point that should be have been a surprise instead of just given away in a synopsis. Before hand, I of course went on IMDb to check what the film premise was about, and unintentionally spoiled something that should have been shocking, but instead I didn’t expect for the film to take 1/3 to get to that point. I read about the film Boxing Helena before going on IMDb when checking up a list of controversial films (I occasionally like a challenge in discussing a film) so that’s what sold me on it. However, I advise anyone who has an interest in seeing this film to be cautious when reading reviews on this film. If it sounds like a synopsis, just skip it, and read whatever left in the written review. Best advice I could give to go into this as blindly as possible.
On to the actual meat of discussion in Boxing Helena story. The story is slow moving while introducing interesting concepts in the first act. Nick Cavanaugh is shown being neglected by his mother at a party, and not being affected much by his mother death as an adult by leaving his mother funeral early. Raising a question of what kind of relationship Nick had with his mother? To bad the film almost immediately stopped poking around with the idea. Last time Nick mother has anything to do with the story is a hallucination where Nick sees his naked mother in an attempt to imply they had an unhealthy relationship, but how far it went is uncertain. It’s a “connect the loose dot” form of writing done badly when there’s little foundation to connect concrete information given to the viewer. What’s concrete is Nick had a trouble relationship with his mother, but everything else in association to that is kept vague. There isn’t enough to make the connection between Nick relationship with his mother, and the type of woman he’s attracted to come off as viable. At best, it’s imaginative speculation, but at worse making something significant out of something that ain’t there to be found.
In terms of characters they’re just plot devices. To an extent all characters can be considered plot devices, but there are capable writers who are able to masked this. Jennifer Lynch was not able too. I wouldn’t need to count on my hand the amount of characters that were fleshed in this movie because they don’t exist. All supporting characters are basically one trait exacerbated too inconvenient Nick. In the film, Nick has a girlfriend, Anne Garett (played by Betsy Clark) whom he just has a relationship with. If the film dabble a bit on Nick obsession perhaps being greater than his love for Anne there would have been a point to Anne in the film. Anne, much like the implications of Nick troublesome relationship with his mother, provides little in the way of something concrete to confirm themes, and ideas. In one of the very few scene Anne is in she treats Nick in a motherly way. As mentioned before, there’s speculation to be had that Nick might have a thing for women that remind him of his mother, but there’s not enough established about the characters to make it more than mere speculation.
The loose dots could have been remedied halfway with Dr. Lawrence Augustine who is played by Art Garfunkel…I don’t know why he just is in the movie. It’s mentioned briefly that Lawrence helped with Nick on his obsession with Helena, the woman Nick had a one stand with, but to what extent is kept vague. All the viewer is told about Nick mother is that she’s neglectful, and in one instance of the film Nick see’s an image of his mother when Helena is choking him. Does that mean that Nick had an abusive, or perhaps had sexual relation with his mother? The viewer will never know since there is nothing much to Nick’s mother, nor does Dr. Lawrence provide much insight as a friend of Nick. You think Art Garfunkel, of all people to have been cast, would have imparted on Nick some wisdom about relationship, but that’s the sound of silence.
Another plot device comes in the form of Ray O’Malley played by Bill Paxton. Ray O’Malley is more of a possessive friend with benefits who loves having sex with Helena. Ray contribute slightly to the film’s story, but then there’s the ending which undoes virtually all his contribution in the film. For Helena who is the other main character on the other hand, throughout the film she does speak about how almost every man she comes across only love her for her looks. Helena is played by Sherilyn Fenn who is stunning in the film which makes such an idea easy to swallow. Her personality on the other hand has little to dig into as for most of the film she’s verbally, and physically fighting against Nick possessive nature over her. This mostly due to the fact that the film’s ending once again undoing what development, and characterization the viewer thought there was in the film. So Helena fears to commit to a relationship through her arc means nothing in the end. In particular, if Helena arc did mean something than it would require an incredible amount of disbelief that two people experience the same exact thing while unconscious.
The ending to Boxing Helena is single handedly the most polarizing aspect about it. It’s so fundamental to how viewers perceive their overall view on the film it’ll change your perspective into an extreme. On one hand it could simply be viewed as a cautionary tale of an obsessed doctor psyche. However, since the ending rewrites the rules it makes it come off as clueless writing when scenes not involving Nick Cavanaugh are shown to the viewers. The twist ending, despite how much it undoes still retains Nick Cavanaugh characterization, and can still be viewed as cautionary tale of being incapable to overcome his obsession. A character in the film, due to this ending, basically stroke Nick Cavanaugh ego as being a superior man holds some weight. However, because of the ending many of the implied themes, and ideas have even less of a foundation to be more than mere speculation. As you can probably tell by this review the film’s ending makes a non-spoiler review challenging to write around.
Julian Sands stars in the film to good, and bad degree of acting. The good being Julian Sands is able to make his character come off as a truly pathetic person, and the bad being the material doesn’t make his character sympathetic. Another good in Julian Sands performance are some of the heavier dramatic scene that requires a burst of anger, or subdue emotion he pulls off. There’s a scene of Julian Sands with Sherilyn Fenn out on the porch in heavy rain. Sands yells at Fenn character to scream out for help, but also in the same scene he’s still comes across as vulnerable despite having power over Fenn character. A bad side to some of Sands dialogue delivery is he’s unintentionally hilarious. One moment that stands out in goofy delivery is when Sands says Helena as desperately as he can before Helena experience an accident. On the whole, Sands performance could be considered positive with occasional mishaps along the way.
Sherilyn Fenn also stars opposite of Julian Sands for a majority of the film. While the film does rely heavily on her looks, and pulls of creating a sorta seductive aura around her. Fenn comes off convincingly in later scenes too that rely less on her looks. Unlike the rest of the cast, Fenn is slowly given limitation to her performance preventing her from being as expressive as the other cast. Yet, she’s still able to be convincing in her role coming off as vulnerable, and strong. A downside to this is most of the time she’s constantly screaming her lines, and doesn’t have as many vulnerable scenes compared to Sands. It doesn’t help either that there isn’t much to Fenn character either so Fenn gradually changing into a different person sadly go to waste due to context of the film.
The only other noteworthy performance comes from Bill Paxton who dress up like a dated, 90s greaser in the film. Aside from his silly appearances, Bill Paxton only appears in four scenes, and is silly in all of them. He hams it up in his short screen time, and makes an impression. The other supporting actors in the film are fully onenote. Art Garfunkel doesn’t do much in terms of range, Betsy Clark doesn’t do much either with her time, and Kurtwood Smith despite playing his small part well won’t stay with you because once again, very limited screen time. Also, since it’s wholly a serious movie the whole supporting cast performances eventually mesh with each other being indistinguishable from one another.
Jennifer Lynch direction is fine for a first a time director. There are certain shots that are questionable in the way they’re frame. For example, there’s a scene of Julian Sands looking out at the front of his Mansion garden, and is unable to see a clearly visible crouching Bill Paxton behind some branches. It makes you wonder how Sands wasn’t able to see Bill Paxton when he’s as visible as he is. Another bad shot is when Helena is hit by a car, and lingering on it for too long exposes the bad effects used in the moment. Jennifer Lynch was both subtle, and heavy handed with some of her imagery. Heavy handed when cutting to a bird in cage whenever Fenn is failing to escape the grasp of Julian Sands. The subtle imagery comes in how very selective shots are framed to make it appear it’s actor are stuck in boxes. As for anything else I would say the selection of music is fitting, but none of the original music stands out. A lot of the music choices are orchestrated pieces with rare inclusion of insert tracks. The only piece of music that stands out is a cover of Bonnie Raitt“I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Venice. To Lynch credit, it fits perfectly into what she was trying to get across in her film.
This would usually be the end of the review with me posting my closing thoughts, but there’s still one other thing left to talk about, and that’s the ludicrous statement that this film is sexist towards women. The criticism came from the 90s when it was release, but as of the moment of this review being posted it’s as relevant as ever. Labeling this a male power fantasy is silly since Helena is constantly fighting back against her captor for the entire film. Helena wants nothing to do with Nick, even when holds her captive, and Nick is doing anything to prevent her from escaping. If anything, it’s actually against power fantasies since Helena fight every chance she gets. Nick isn’t rewarded for his action which is proven by the film’s ending. Another thing that disproves the film so call “sexism” is Nick does not enjoy obsessing over a woman he had a night stand with. In his own words regarding his obsession, “I’m still haunted for my love for her”. Even if I take into account the way the film is shot it’s still part of Nick character whose otherworldly attraction to Helena is presented by those images, and having seen the film entirely Nick does not enjoy seeing Helena the way he does. It’s negative for his mindset, and negative in his life. Just imagine if the film were to be release in 2016, and it would have caused a far greater riot. I clearly don’t think highly of Boxing Helena, but there’s one thing that Jennifer Lynch didn’t come across when directing her film, and that was sexist.
Boxing Helena I see as a lost opportunity. Beneath the many faults I do feel if handled by a more experience director could have been great. By a first time director, Jennifer Lynch lacked the experience she needed to pull off such an experimental project, and couldn’t reach the high mark she set for herself. None of this is further evident with the ending, and scenes that go against the notion of the ending. Much like its title character, the film itself is trapped in a metaphorical box, but instead of going outside of the box, and sticking to it guns with an ending that would have garner it some respect, even among some detractors. It’s ending plays it safe which goes along with abstract theme of society putting people in boxes, but at the cost of giving the impression Boxing Helena is not worth taking out of its box, even among the more “artsy” film lovers.
Side Stuff: Casting Controversy
There’s also the controversy of casting when it comes to this film. I read one review that made a joke out of it for a closing statement. Granted I wanted to do the same, but someone else beat me to the punch. Originally Madonna was meant to play the part of Helena, but dropped out due to unexplained reasons. Afterwards, Kim Basinger was set to star, but once again stepped down from the role. Unlike Madonna, Kim Basinger exit from the film caused her to go to court, and file for bankruptcy. Her exit from the film cost to pay around, allegedly, $9 million dollars to the film’s producer. Given that Kim Basinger would win best supporting actress four years in 1997 L.A. Confidential I doubt Kim Basinger regret passing up on Boxing Helena.
If there’s another genre that had a bigger fall from grace it would be the horror genre. Much like the action genre, allot of fans can agree the 80s was where it peaked in popularity. However, horror can still continue to push the boundary of what is acceptable both visually, and from a creative perspective. How much is too much when it comes to blood, and gore. How in depth of an character exploration can you create before you begin thinking like a killer. Horror has the ability, more so than other genre, to put viewers in a uncomfortable situations, and even scare them in some cases. As someone who doesn’t see allot of horror movies it’s unfortunate very few horror films from the 90s, and 2000s didn’t entice me in viewing the genre without a preconceived notion. What made matter worse is despite having seen very few horror films, most of what I was exposed to by friends, and family were generally trite films within the genre. There were eventually films that won me over like 1931 Frankenstein, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre from 1974 (the only horror movie to scare me to date), and George A. Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead which is my all time favorite zombie film. That’s why I’m happy to write about I Saw the Devil. A modern horror film that is hybrid with a psychological thriller, and succeed for all the right reasons work as well it should have.
I Saw the Devil is about a secret agent exacting revenge on a serial killer through a series of captures and releases. While not entirely a horror film, one admirable trait that I Saw the Devil accomplishes far better than general horror films is contextualizing the blood, and gore. Too often do many films within this genre disregard characters, and story for the sake of bloodshed. The film is deliberately slow paced for this singular reason. For starter, it slow pacing helps it create an atmosphere of dread over it’s main Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee). What it also allows for is to display impatience within Kim Soo-hyeon witnessing him losing sleep over finding his wife’s killer. Showing Kim Soo-hyeon will do anything in his position in the name of vengeance. Splicing scenes of both Kim Soo-hyeon, and Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi) current activities in the film to never lose focus of time. Showing the two men psychology are similar in certain ways, but makes it easy to determine who the film wants you to sympathize with as Kim Soo-hyeon is going after killers while Kyung-chul goes after women to kill.
Another aspect of the story that is appealing is putting a twist on a familiar premise. In some horror films, if the victim of the deceased faces with the killer it’s either save until the climax, or becomes a film where the victim tortures the killer until someone dies in both scenario. By the end of the first act, the film victim Kim Soo-hyeon confronts killer Kyung-chul in which, surprisingly a choreographed fight scene ensues. After this confrontation, the film still continues by using a hunter, and the hunted mentality for its characters. At certain points in the film, this mind game between the two characters are discussed in the film. One attempted to be persuaded to simply let up on the vengeance, and ponder if there’s any value in it. For another he receives a taste of his own medicine while also deriving pleasure of how to get under the skin of whoever chasing him. In terms of characterization enough is given about Kim Soo-hyeon to understand his action. Simple things like having a wife, and caring for his family is as deep as it goes for Kim Soo-hyeon as a person. It’s enough to give an idea of his mentality before he decides to take revenge, and seeing how his act of revenge ultimately affects eventually becomes a dynamic characterization.
The same cannot be said for those it represent as killers since the film never bother exploring the psychological aspect of what can motivate its criminals to do the things they do. There’s a cannibal in the film who loves eating people, but that’s about as deep as it goes. All the criminals function as criminals. They’re meant to be evil for the sake of being evil in order to take pleasure in their deaths. It could be debated the intention was to to debate in the act of revenge itself is justified, but on the other hand the film does not lay down any ground work for greyness. Nothing is more evident of this than the usage of its female characters. From the victims perspectives they respect women as people, but every time a criminal interacts with a woman it’s with the intent to do whatever the criminal desire to do with them. It’s portrayal of representing both sides is one dimensional at best. Just fine for a revenge fantasy film, but when the script tacked on a family aspect to Kyung-chul character it says it wanted to be something more thought provoking. Made even noteworthy when it wants to use Kyung-chul family to get across a specific agenda that doesn’t work out since they’re only included in one before popping back up again. It hard see the film for anything other more than just a piece of revenge fantasy where viewers takes satisfaction in seeing its main character harm criminals.
Other issues within the film are specifically connected to the horror genre itself. Moments in the film required higher suspension of disbelief in order for the film to function the way it wants too. One of these problematic plot point is not Kim Soo-hyeon not killing his wife’s murderer when he’s given three good opportunities to do so. It’s given context, and established motivation for why Kim Soo-hyeon won’t simply kill Kyung-chul. What is not explained in the film is how Kyung-chul manage to find personal information of Kim Soo-hyeon within a quick span of time. There’s no mention in the film he’s connected with anyone in the police force, nor has ties with many criminals that can provide this information. Another issues comes in the form of useless police officers for the film both as characters, and narrative devices. Within the film, the police officers biggest contribution is making an arrest after Kim Soo-hyeon has another encounter with Kyung-chul. As far as usage go they give minimal remarks on how they dislike killers receiving medical treatment in a hospital despite their crimes, and does not provide additional characterization for any of the criminals. A miss opportunity for the police officers is providing a semblance of a man hunt. Rarely is there a mention of the police making progress of finding a suspect who is going after serial killers. There’s is a moment where it seems like the police are close to tracking down Kyung-chul, but it ends up being forgotten plot point. I would mention that the police did provide Kim Soo-hyeon information needed to track down his wife murderer as a positive from the police inclusion, but he’s a secret agent so information gathering wouldn’t be as difficult to obtain if he was an ordinary citizen.
I Saw the Devil is entirely reliant on talent of two highly regarded actors from Korea who are Choi Min-sik, and Byung-hun Lee. Choi Min-sik as the psychaotic Kyung-chul is a performance that is show stealing. Portraying a psychopath whose proud, and takes pleasure in the accomplishment of his killings. Embodying the truest essence of a killer without going over the top. Choi Min-sik subdue portrayal makes his character much more memorable because of it. Coming off as human as possible making it believable in one moment he holds your best interest to then later on want to chop you up into pieces. Withholding any urge to exaggerate his mannerism, and body language. At the same time, despite how often the viewer will see him get abused, Min-sik is a talented actor that he’s still manage to make his character despicable. The character of Kyung-chul has remotely no essence of any likable traits, yet Choi Min-sik understanding of his character paints a clear understanding of his mentality. In the all best possible ways, Choi Min-sik delivers a performance is very impressive to see unfold as much as it is capable to make you immerse within the film.
Byung-hun Lee who plays isn’t too shabby himself in the film either. Lee does a excellent job displaying a character whom seem to have all life sucked out of him. Remaining calm in any situation, even when to face with the killer. Despite displaying a humanless exterior for most of the film when the situation demands it Byung-hun Lee, in a few scenes is able to be emotional. There’s a final moment as the film closes where in a single moment Lee be expresses how mentality broken his character has become. When it comes to the sequences that require to fight him against actor Choi Min-sik, and neither of whom are expert in martial arts their performance of these sequences can fool anyone. Especially Byung-hun Lee whose swift movement can make a viewer further believe he encompasses his perfectly. As for the rest of the cast they’re at best character actor being good at playing off that one specific trait of their characters. It’s no exaggeration when saying the film is essentially a showcase for actors Choi Min-sik, and Byung-hun Lee than. Given the film aims that’s not a negative. The (I’m surprise to have) stunts work in the film are have good work put into them, and in certain scenes amaze by its creativity.
The film is directed by Jee-won Kim who also has a writing credit in the film. His direction in the film is basically flawless. Despite sporting a beautiful look thanks to Mo-gae Lee it still manages to create scenes that master of the horror genre would be proud off. One important tool in Kim framing of a horror sequence is lightning, and showing specific details of the environments. In the opening sequence, Jee-won Kim makes it clear how helpless one of Choi Min-sik victims is in the environment. A recurring feeling Jee-won Kim goes for is making the viewer feel trapped in certain environments. Rarely showing what’s on the outside of an car, or building when a horror set piece is in place. His usage of wide shots is minimal in the film mostly being reliant on close on medium, and close ups whenever in buildings, and cars. What it accomplishes is not showing any blind spot to where an escape route is possible. Another aspect Jee-won Kim avoids is the common horror trope of people tripping while they run. Since there isn’t a high death count that never becomes an issue. If there’s any moments where Jee-won Kim becomes indulgent it’s mostly towards horror fans. He makes up for the lack of kills by going all out in showing good practical effects of body parts, makes sure lots of blood is spilled, and doesn’t cut away from hard to watch sequences. There’s a scene there you see a character cutting off an Achilles tendon, and the viewer sees the entire process. Another standout sequence execellent direction revolves around Choi Min-sik riding in a taxi with suspicious characters. Without being specific, this particular is carefully constructed to be bloody displaying Choi Min-sik stabbing people multiple times in a taxi, and having little blood spill on the camera as it spins around taxi. Jee-won Kim is relentless where it counts, but not overboard to the point where it’s indulgent on blood, and gore.
I Saw the Devil is wonderful combination of horror, and a psychological thriller understanding the best of both genre. The horror elements allows it to go into dark places as well as be bloody in presentation. Balance elegantly with the psychological mind games of two characters who simply hate each other guts to fuel it story after its first act. It’s a wonderfully twisted cat, and mouse game even when it’s clear at points it wants to be more than just revenge fantasy entertainment. On a technical level alone it offers two great performances from two good actor which alone makes it worth viewing. If you haven’t seen a good usage of horror within films, or simply a fan of horror movies I Saw the Devil will satisfy viewers who simply want the blood, and gore, while also offering viewers who are looking something more than just meaningless bloodshed.
Psychological stories are among my favorite forms of storytelling along with the Western genre, Samurai films, and martial art films. This is mostly contributed to personal preferences as these four type of films, if everything is done correctly, hit all my sweet spots of what I’m looking for in a film. Western films in particular I consider the genre to find the best examples of writing in films for in depth narrative, and character exploration while martial art films can get me emotionally invested in events than a traditional action movie. Psychological stories what they tend to offer, besides the occasional intelligent writing, is endless possibilities in writing, and countless pondering thoughts once the film ends. When psychological films are done correctly you’ll have example likes Inception where debates over an ending among other elements are still written about. Clues that could have been missed the first time further can make you appreciate a film. Whereas other examples can fall into M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense category of thinking it’s smarter than actually is. Despite it being well received, I still hold on my beliefs that it’s a film that is poorly written, and badly directed since it build around a single gimmick. That brings me to write about today’s film that falls into the later category of psychological films I dislike that are unable to use their key element in the story in any meaningful way. While not uncommon, it’s never a welcoming sight to see the exact moment where a film fall apart.
1: Nenokkadine is about a rock star who must overcome his psychological inhibitions to seek revenge for his parents’ death. The film waste no time drawing in viewers into the story starting with a kid running away from adults shooting at him. You immediately wonder why, and the opening sequence does it job in setting up the psychological elements without faltering. However, after the flashback is over it’s immediately followed by a musical number. Now the first song does have context since Gautham (Mahesh Babu) is performing at a rock concert. So the transition into a musical number isn’t jarring. Unlike the rest of the film where musical numbers just happen out of nowhere. While it is par for the course for Indian movies to insert musical numbers into a number of their films it is also common for some of the films to insert them accordingly. This film feel no need to fit them in so it’s spontaneous when it occurs. At least the first song while it contribute little narratively was an enjoyable, energetic track about finding yourself. Whereas the other 4 musical numbers are simply about love with corny lyrics. Except the last song in the film which could have been cut out since it contributes nothing.
Now before the film reaches the 41 minute mark it’s story is actually intriguing. It strikes a nice balance playing with Gautham psyche without over complicating matters. The streamlined story is constantly making the viewer wonder if its leading character is imagining events, or if they actually happened. Every major event within the first 41 minutes serve to play a mind game with the viewers. Presenting events in careful manner to not reveal the truth of Gautham memories. It’s also everything pass those first 41 minutes that the film entirely falls apart. Due to a simple scene the psychological angle the film started with is absolutely gone. No longer will you question if Gautham can’t tell the difference between imagination, and reality. This is one moment with Samira (Kriti Sanon) explaining her method to coworkers on how to get an interview with Gautham destroys any doubts you might have had of Gautham psychology being unstable. It’s so plot breaking that further events in the film that attempt to play with the idea of Gautham imagination with their only being one reasonable outcome from that one that scene in the film. Ultimately you end up seeing a film that thinks it’s more intelligent than it actually is. Throwing plot twist as every major turning point. If the film wasn’t trying to be a psychological thriller first than the issue wouldn’t as glaring. However, it would still be an overblown love story.
A major chunk of the film is focus on romance that is overblown. The script doesn’t give the protagonist, and love interest enough time before they fall in love. In context, these two character share a single musical number, and a single action scene which is enough for the protagonist to basically die for his love. This is despite the fact after he learns his love interest has been deceiving him simply forgetting the fact that he been lie by this woman a majority of the time they spend together. After a scene where the damsel in distress get rescue consciously for the first time the romance becomes lovey-dovey. It’s further embarrassing seeing adult characters written like teenagers saying romantic to each other like they were little kids.
Then there’s a subplot revolving around Hydrogen Cyanide getting mixed into seeds causing infertile land causing inedible food in the background that only appears if neede to make progress. That’s a mouthful for sure, but it doesn’t end there as the flimsy attempt to tie in this subplot into its main storyline becomes over the top. Before it eventually evolves to a possible ego stroking film that’s only made to make it star look good. If main character Gautham who is constantly refer to as Rockstar in the film can find the Golden Rice than he can stop world hunger. You might be wondering how a film about a rockstar trying to find his parents killer ended up becoming a green environmentalist action film. The answer is simple as I went to the film IMDb page, and see nine people were given credits. Nine people writing a single film that almost three hours explains allot. It explains why the film never bother explaining how a rockstar just has the skill of a secret agent. This also explains why the film uses of flashbacks several time in the film, withholding certain information, and explains why a film that is wholly serious gives up attempting to balance a serious tone with comedy. Also, explains why despite Gautham popularity he doesn’t have any fanatic fan that would stalk him despite apparently being describe as Indian biggest rockstar.
Characterization for leading character Gautham is surprisingly dynamic. He has an conflict that is both external, and internal that he is desperate to find the resolution for. Despite the story placing importance on overblown romance Gautham turmoil is a driving force for the film. While the film doesn’t spend much on telling us about Gautham himself his conflict in the film is enough to make him an interesting character. Changing his minded goal of revenge into something more personal like remembering their faces. Touches like this make Gautham far more interesting than hardened person who already has his mind set on killing only to possibly change his mind in the end. That’s another aspect to his character that is great. Gautham deciding whether or not to take revenge isn’t the climax of his character. The storytelling isn’t coherent consistently, but Gautham as a character is easy to understand. It’s just a shame Jeremy Zimmermann, Arjun Y.K., Suneel Madhav, Thota Srinivas, Palnati Surya Pratap, Venkateswararao Potluri, Hari Prasad Jakka, Jakka Hariprasad, and Sukamar (who also the film’s director) nine credited writers couldn’t think among themselves how to create a good story to along with him. The other characters, are not even worth mentioning since they’re treated as plot devices, and nothing more.
The rest of the cast isn’t worth discussing in depth since they play pretty straightforward roles. Kriti Sanon who plays Samira is given a role where she plays an woman infatuated with her love interest. As some point in the film it seemed she would be required to do more than smile, look pretty, and bubbly when around the Mahesh Babu, but it doesn’t last long. So she overshadow in every possible way when she shares scenes with Mahesh Babu. Her biggest praise would be she could sing, and dance well, but so can her co star Mahesh Babu. Nasser who plays the film antagonist doesn’t appear in the film until the climax. While screen time is a contributing factor to his lack of an impression is his bland portrayal of a villain makes an easy part of the film to forget. Kelly Dorji is more of the same playing a villain, though his final scene allows him to mix change his dialogue delivery. Supporting actors in general from Anu Hasan, Pradeep Singh Rawat, Sayaji Shinde, Krishna Murali Posani, Gautham Ghattamaneni, Anand, Ravi Verma, and Srinivasa Reddy give the impression they’ll be given roles before disappearing from the film with pure ease.
Sukumar as an director at least nailed down making good music videos in the film. They look stylish as well having good dance choreography to showcase. Playing up a particular aspect in different musical numbers, including the corny love song where he films like a cheesy romance movie. Devi Sri Prasad did an excellent job creating the music. The action scenes in the film all good stunt work, but an issue in all of them is editing. In virtually all the action speed, and quick cuts are played around with. For example, there’s a fight scene where Mahesh Babu has to defend his love interest from a group thugs. Within the same fight scene there’s good practical effects that make the lack of psychics look convincing. This particular fight scene is unable to hide the fact actors in the background simply standing around waiting for their que to be in the scene. Also, this particular fight scene repeats the same shot of its own fight within the same sequence. What is not fun to see is seeing an entire action scene not being allowed to play out by itself without being tampered in some way. As oppose to the film first action sequence where playing with the motion of speed wasn’t abused while it played out.
Another issue is some of the bigger set pieces lack creativity. There’s a set piece in a parking lot having our hero fight off a gang motorcyclist trying to kill. Despite showing some of the motorcyclist carrying guns they never fun them while riding the motorcycles. That sequence in particular plays to traditional to the run, shoot, and cover style of action choreography without changing much in how it plays. Finally, the final action set piece requires you to disbelief the fact that our hero is couple of feet away from armed guards shooting at him, in a wide open space, and somehow not getting shot. The choreography in the final action sequence is sloppy unable to hide the fact that Mahesh Babu should have gotten in despite not hiding behind cover. If the sequence showed Babu dodging bullets by showing some bullet pierce on the ground, or destroy some light to distort vision it would have been easier to swallow the nonsense. There’s also some bad CGI in a sequence with a ship is burning then exploding, and some set pieces being filmed way too close to tell what’s going on. They’re done in a way where it’s easy to lose coherence while viewing them. It’s a shame too since they have some good stunt work in them, though in a nearly three hour film a couple action sequences won’t do much to salvage a bad even if they edited, and filmed correctly. Especially when a long chase sequence is only showing Babu running after someone without spicing it up in any way.
1: Nenokkadine is an overlong film with a psychological angle that shoots itself in the foot 41 minutes in the film. It’s think it smarter than actually is resulting in a film where it length is noticeable. The overblown romance, the bad psychological aspect, and the lackluster subplot of finding Golden Rice to stop world hunger aren’t an exciting mixed elements like they should have been. Mahesh Babu performance alone cannot out do the damage done by jarring transition into musical numbers, and badly edited action sequences. While star Mahesh Babu demonstrated he has talent. It’s unfortunate that none of the filmmakers, and especially it credited don’t have any of it to produce something worthwhile in a nearly three hour film.