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A Fine Line

Torture for art's sake is still torture.

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Three . . . Extremes

** (Worth seeing)

"Cut" written and directed by Chan-wook Park

With Lee Byung-hun, Kang Hye-jeong, and Lim Won-hie

Saw II

no stars (Worthless)

Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman

Written by Bousman and Leigh Whannell

With Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Donnie Wahlberg, and Erik Knudsen

Three weeks ago the Senate voted 90 to 9 to forbid the "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" treatment of U.S. military prisoners, which has prompted Vice President Cheney to seek an exemption for the CIA. How that will all play out remains to be seen, but one thing's for sure: torture has never been a hard sell at the box office. One case in point is the grim low-budget thriller Saw, in which a mysterious psycho uses fiendish contraptions to torture innocent people. Written by a couple of cheery Australians, James Wan and Leigh Whannell, it was shot in 18 days for a paltry $1.2 million. Released in October 2004 by Lions Gate Films, which specializes in cheapo horror, it grossed $102 million worldwide. Ads and posters showed a pale, severed foot against a plain white background, and despite mixed reviews, the movie connected through word of mouth. ("Dude, there's this scene where a guy cuts off his own foot!")

It might be easy to dismiss Saw--and the inevitable Saw II, which opens this weekend--as exploitation fare, but even the more cultured among us are susceptible to the pleasures of watching people suffer. Three...Extremes, a new art-house release, collects short horror films by three cutting-edge Asian directors: Hong Kong's Fruit Chan; Japan's Takashi Miike, whose 1999 hit Audition energized the critical cult for sadistic Asian pulp; and, hottest of all at the moment, South Korea's Chan-wook Park, whose delirious Oldboy won the grand prize at last year's Cannes film festival and opened to strong reviews here this spring. "Cut," Park's contribution to Three...Extremes, will probably delight critics as much as his other films, yet its premise--a psychopath holds a man captive and pressures him to kill an innocent person--is almost identical to that of Saw.

"Cut" is the most interesting of the three shorts because Park uses the opportunity to take stock of his career and the excruciating cruelty of his movies. In his "revenge trilogy"--Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003), and this year's Sympathy for Lady Vengeance--characters nurse grudges that mature like wine, then exact vengeance in ritualized scenes of torture. In Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance a man who's lost his young daughter to murder ties up one of his suspects, connects her earlobes to a car battery, and gives her the juice. The hero of Oldboy gets even with the man who's been holding him captive for 15 years by yanking out his teeth with the claw end of a hammer. And in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, which screened at this year's Toronto film festival, the heroine binds her nemesis and shoots him point-blank in the foot.

That last scene prompted me to walk out of the movie, less disgusted than impatient with Park's inhumanity. His movies are stylish, kinetic, and often darkly witty, but their sophistication can't obscure their exploitiveness: I've never had the sense that one of his characters will pull back from an act of torture. That may be the reason I was favorably impressed by "Cut," a surreal little screamer in which Park seems to appraise the moral cost of his own success. It opens in a swanky penthouse with navy blue walls and black-and-white-checked floors, where a man stands frozen, preyed upon by a female vampire. This turns out to be a movie set, presided over by a hotshot young director; he wraps the day's shooting and returns home, but his residence is identical to the film set, and as the story progresses, missing panels in the white ceiling reveal the darkness and mounted lights of a movie soundstage.

The director (Lee Byung-hun) is a highly respected craftsman of horror films, but his artistic achievement is thrown rudely back in his face by the disgruntled extra (Lim Won-hie) who's invaded his home. The director's wife (Kang Hye-jeong) sits at the keyboard of their grand piano, gagged and bound in wires that stretch to the ceiling like a giant spider web. A little girl, unknown to husband or wife, has been tied and gagged on a nearby couch. The extra proceeds to cut off the wife's fingers, one every five minutes, telling the director he can halt this disfigurement by strangling the little girl to death: "Let's see how good you can stay." At first the director balks, but after the wife is ungagged, and her raging dialogue reveals the bitterness of their marriage, the director finds himself wrapping his hands around the little girl's throat.

Park manages to imbue all this with a sense of self-inquiry, but it's a dilemma everyone can relate to viscerally, which may account for the sustained popularity of torture in movies. Saw embraced it with the glee of a carnival barker: the two protagonists in that movie, a surgeon and a private investigator, wake to find themselves chained at opposite corners of a grimy subterranean toilet. A cassette tape left behind by their captor, a notorious serial killer, tells the surgeon (Cary Elwes) that he has until six that evening to kill the investigator (Leigh Whannell); otherwise the surgeon's family will die. You can practically hear the debates going on at Arby's after the show.

Yet the main attraction of Saw was the torture itself, outrageous stunts that were hyped like games on a reality show. One victim wakes to find himself surrounded by a sea of razor wire and cuts himself to ribbons trying to swim through it; another is dosed with slow-acting poison, coated with flammable jelly, given a candle, and advised to search the walls for a safe combination that will lead to the antidote. In the most medieval variant, a young woman finds her upper and lower jaw fitted with a "reverse bear trap" that will snap them apart in 60 seconds if she doesn't cut open the stomach of a dead man and retrieve a key that will set her loose. Saw II opens with another of these brutal devices: a mask, lined with nails, that will snap shut into the victim's face unless he can retrieve the key, which has been surgically implanted behind his own eye.

I panned Saw when it came out, calling it sadistic and absurd. I'm not going to reverse those judgments now, but after watching the movie a couple times on video (once with the filmmakers' commentary), I've come to appreciate its eager sensationalism more. Wan and Whannell, first-timers looking for a surefire hit, tossed in everything they could think of that had ever scared them, and as a result the movie's most ridiculous moments are often the creepiest: the killer, nicknamed Jigsaw by the police, communicates with his victims through a closed-circuit TV broadcast of a giant Punch-and-Judy puppet, its pointed cheeks decorated with red spirals and its voice electronically disguised. In a fun house like this the elaborate tortures seem to leave behind the real world of pain and suffering for the realm of slapstick; they're the kind of horrors that make you scream and laugh at the same time.

Maybe I'll be revising my opinion of Saw II a year from now, but I doubt it--an obligatory encore, it comes to life only when it reprises elements from the original movie. This time a whole crew of losers has been kidnapped and locked in a room, where a slow-acting nerve gas will kill them in hours unless they solve a complicated puzzle that Jigsaw has left behind on a series of cassettes. A mysterious figure in the original, he's front and center in the sequel, though he's not as scary as the giant puppet; played by Tobin Bell, he's a coldly angry cancer patient being interrogated by a police detective (Donnie Wahlberg), and his reasons for torturing his handpicked victims seem abstract at best.

I'll deliver a huge spoiler at this point by revealing that Jigsaw has an accomplice now: played by Shawnee Smith, she's the woman who narrowly escaped his "reverse bear trap" in the first movie. How she made the emotional journey from victim to torturer isn't explained, not by a long shot. But if you're paying $9 to watch a movie like Saw II, you may have some idea already.

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