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Art-house films: ‘I Saw the Devil,’ ‘The Trip,’ ‘The Afterlight’

'I Saw Devil'

"I Saw the Devil"

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Updated: June 23, 2011 12:25AM

Opening this week on the local specialty film circuit:

‘I Saw the Devil’ ★★★

Korean director Jee-woon Kim adds the crime revenge film to his roster of genres with “I Saw the Devil.” Billed as an “Oriental Western,” it’s an inventive exercise on par with his horror entry “A Tale of Two Sisters” (2003) and “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” (2008).

In press notes for this film, Kim quotes Friedrich Nietzsche’s cautionary dic­tum about fighters of monsters turning into monsters themselves. That is key to Hoon-jung Park’s grisly, gritty screenplay that pits a federal agent against a psychopath.

After serial killer Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik from “Oldboy”) beheads the daughter of a retired captain of the violent crimes section, her fiance, Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hyun), a federal agent, is offered two months off from work to grieve. He asks only for two weeks and seeks extra-judicial revenge. He finds the killer, knocks him out and plants in his gut a GPS tracking capsule equipped a microphone. Now Soo-hyun can stalk Kyung-chul. Serial payback for a serial psychokiller: catch, torture, release and catch again.

“Life is about chasing and being chased” was the line of dialogue that summarized Kim’s “The Good, the Bad, the Weird.” The logic of “I Saw the Devil” is expressed when a law-enforcement colleague reproaches Soo-hyun: “Revenge is for movies.”

This film offers knotty catharsis for its hero and fans of the genre, too. Nietzsche warned: “When you gaze into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” Not only does Soo-hyun see himself in Kyung-chul, but Kim wants our gaze to meet the screen’s abyss.

No MPAA rating. Running time: 141 minutes. In Korean, with English subtitles. Opening today at the Music Box.

‘The Trip’ ★★★

English director Michael Winterbottom follows English actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon on a diverting six-day journey in “The Trip.” The two friends play friends who are also actors. They continue their competitive banter from “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story,” an earlier Winterbottom drama in which the pair went in and out of character on a film set.

Thoroughly indulgent, this partly improvised treat features a surfeit of impersonations of the actors’ betters. The comic duo finesse the nasal cadences of Michael Caine at key stages of his career. Also rendered are the accents of Woody Allen, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins, Ian McKellen, Liam Neeson and Al Pacino. Iconic dialogue from James Bond films is repeated ad nauseam.

The set-up is Coogan’s fictive assignment by a London newspaper to review six out-of-the-way restaurants in the Lake District, Lancashire and the Yorkshire Dales. His American girlfriend is a foodie who is on hiatus from their relationship, so Brydon is recruited as a traveling companion at the last minute. “The Trip” contrasts new dad Brydon with a baby at home, with the divorced Coogan, who is trying to discipline his schoolboy son by cell phone. Under the banter of literary wit, Winterbottom portrays a friendship of two men in their respective domestic contexts.

Originally produced as a six-episode BBC comedy series, “The Trip” is punctuated with six twilight vistas framing a solitary Coogan from behind. Typically, he seeks a phone signal. The cuisine, including “duck fat lollipops” and an “ironic dessert,” is not the film’s main course. Coogan never writes notes, turns on a tape recorder or opens a laptop.

Coogan’s agent in Los Angeles assures him, “It’s a good time to be Steve Coogan,” but cannot tempt him to relocate to the United States for an HBO pilot titled “Pathological.” His family, he says, comes first. Winterbottom may nod to his own career here: His ex-wife penned a knowing novel about an Englishwoman’s doomed marriage to a film director who was always away.

No MPAA rating. Running time: 107 minutes. Screening at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Gene Siskel Film Center as the closing-night film of the European Union Film Festival. A reception hosted by Whole Foods Market follows the screening.

‘The Afterlight’ ★★

Co-directors Alexei Kaleina and Craig Macneill attempt what they term “a minimalist tone poem.” That’s a fair description of “The Afterlight,” an atmospheric etude centering on a young couple that moves from the city for unclear reasons to settle in an abandoned rural schoolhouse for equally unclear reasons. Unfortunately, the subdued tone only adds distance, not depth, to their unstated issues.

Andrew (Michael Kelly) and Claire (Jicky Schnee) seem lost in vague moods. She is pregnant but hasn’t told anyone. Their nearest neighbors are an adventurous girl, a widow and a blind woman. Their contacts are too allusive to illuminate much. Veteran character actor Rip Torn makes an appearance for a scene that upstages the rest of the cast. His character is like a ghost.

What makes “The Afterlight” truly poetic, per the filmmakers’ phrase, is the lustrous cinematography by Zoe White. There are countless sylvan views and sky vistas that made me wish the diaphanous plot — Claire has yet to tell Andrew about her pregnancy — was minimized even more, if only to make more screen time for White’s wordless visuals.

A total solar eclipse supplies a finale with the entrancing last line: “What does it look like?” That is far more original than the unconvincing Hollywood cliche the Kaleina and Macneill use to summarize what supposedly occurs: “Our characters find themselves — and their lives — changed forever.”

No MPAA rating. Running time: 87 minutes. Opening today at Facets Cinematheque.

Bill Stamets is a locally based free-lance writer and critic.

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