Review: Kim Jin-won’s “The Butcher”


A Michael Haneke film on acid, Kim Jin-won’s The Butcher is a relentless 75-minute assault on the senses. The premise is as simple as it is brutal: a group of budding filmmakers have kidnapped a group of people, chaining them together in a dank human abattoir in order to make them the unwilling stars of their torture porn epic. The film is shot on digital video entirely from POV cameras that alternate from the perspectives of the perpetrators and their victims. It is an incendiary bomb lobbed at the heart of a Korean film industry that more than ever seems to be made up of little more than minor variations on genres and formulas that have made money in the past, slick and technically impeccable creations without an ounce of soul or wit. The grimy, lo-fi aesthetic of The Butcher literally rubs your face in the blood, vomit, and viscera to be found within.

In its implication of the consumers of violent entertainment into its thick (a)moral web, The Butcher seems to take its cue not only from Haneke’s Funny Games, but from such American latter-day gore fests as the Saw and Hostel films. The filmmakers/torturers in the film acknowledge as much: these snuff film auteurs discuss selling their wares to the American market, aware of how much the overseas public eats this stuff up. Also, the fact that the film is shot with camera rigs attached to the heads of the victims recalls two other films: George Romero’s Diary of the Dead and Brian De Palma’s Redacted, both of which critique the media-saturated, You Tube world we currently live in. The Butcher one-ups them both, however, in its strategy of erasing all the music cues and other distancing devices that would give the audience some measure of comfort. The raw nature of the film’s style, especially the use of off-screen sounds of screaming and chainsaws, is used in the service of maximum audience discomfort. And in this age of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and Al-Qaeda beheadings staged for the internet, this film proves to be all too congruent with the global zeitgeist.

Kim Jin-won paints a grim, circular world of brutality, engaged in by both victims and perpetrators, to the extent that, as the latter scenes of the film show, there is ultimately little difference between the two. The ugliness of human nature is the obvious theme of this film. There is also a critique here of both the movie industry and our seemingly limitless appetite for violent movies, although what that critique is seems diffuse and not fully formed. And I must stress that the cliché is definitely true: this is most certainly not for the faint of heart. It is a blessing that the film is as brief as it is; any longer and Kim could be said to be as guilty of sadistic torture as the characters in the film. And I must mention that this film has one of the scariest characters of any film I’ve seen, horror or otherwise: an unnamed, large man who wears a pig mask that never comes off. This character is the twisted progeny of Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and is responsible for some of this film’s most disturbing scenes.

Viewers, consider yourselves warned.