I Saw the Devil *** ½
Directed by: Jee-woon Kim.
Written by: Hoon-jung Park.
Starring: Byung-hun Lee (Kim Soo-hyeon), Min-sik Choi (Kyung-chul), Gook-hwan Jeon (Squad Chief Jang), Ho-jin Jeon (Section Chief Oh), San-ha Oh (Joo-yeon), Yoon-seo Kim (Se-yeon).
The movie opens with an extremely unsettling scene, as we see the beautiful Joo-yeon (San-ha Oh) on the phone with her Special agent fiancée, talking about how her car has broken down in the snow, and she’s waiting for a tow truck. It isn’t long before a strange man, in a school van, shows up to offer help, which she politely refuses. But no sooner has she hung with her fiancée, than the man in the van comes back – breaks her window, beats her to death, and drags her lifeless body across the snow in one of the most haunting shots in recent memory. He will take her back to his house where he will chop up her body and dispose of it. When it’s found, the fiancée, Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee) vows to track down the killer and have his revenge. It doesn’t take him long to discover that the killer is Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi from Oldboy). But Kim is not interested in simply killing him – he wants to toy and with him for a while, and torture him so that he feels even more pain than his fiancée did. But of course, it isn’t quite as simple as that.
Watching I Saw the Devil, I couldn’t help but think of a movie like Taken from a few years ago. I disliked Taken immensely, but many other people loved it. It is kind of the cookie cutter version of the revenge story we see a lot. I thought of it, because Kim has some of the same very specific abilities that Liam Neesom had in that film – we see them early in the film when he’s trying to figure out who the killer is by torturing a few other candidates first. He is a man with “nothing to lose”, who can inflict pain with the best of them.
But I Saw the Devil is more complex than that. This isn’t just a story of a man seeking vengeance, and it isn’t quite as simple as the fact that the hero has to sink to the level of the killer to catch him. Those questions have been asked and answered in movie many times over, and although often times they can still work (like in No Country for Old Men and The Dark Knight), I Saw the Devil goes further. Kim really does sink to the level of the killer – his torture of him throughout the movie is brutal and unrelenting. The movie toys with our expectations – we saw what the killer did to his fiancé, so we want him to have his vengeance. The movie gives us that, and then goes further and further and further until we are sickened by what is on the screen. You want vengeance and blood – you got it, now deal with it.
One of things that I think works best about I Saw the Devil are the performances. Min-sik Choi truly is one of the most memorable serial killers in recent memory. Yes, to a certain extent, it is a rehash of other serial killers in the movies, but he seems even more remorseless than they do – and is not nearly as charming or intelligent. He kills because he enjoys killing people. No one will leave the theater smiling about him like they do with Hannibal Lector. But Byung-hun Lee is perhaps even better, even though he has the much less showy role. He seems emotionless as he is going about his work, and he doesn’t even seem to care too much that his way of torturing Kyung-chul (he tracks him down, breaks something, and then lets him go to track him down again and break something else), means that there are quite a few innocent people put in harm’s way for his vengeance. It isn’t until Kyung turns the tables that he starts to regret it – and even then, the emotions are not over the top – not even in his tragic final scene.
I have not seen any films by director Jee-woon Kim before – not even his highly regarded Western mash-up The Good, The Bad, The Weird – released here last year. On the basis on I Saw the Devil (and what I know about his previous film), he is obviously a movie brat – a Korean Quentin Tarantino as it were. He references many films here – Oldboy in the first scene (it is not a coincidence that Kyung’s weapon of choice there is a hammer) – but he plays with them a little bit. Watch the segment with the cannibal to see how he takes something out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and then twists it.
I Saw the Devil is certainly not a pleasant film to sit through. For genre fans however, it is a must. And what I appreciated about it is that even though it shows quite a bit of torture – of tough to take violence – it never devolves into the level of torture porn. There are real characters at the center of this film, and the violence flows from them. This isn’t a film where torture is shot for torture’s sake – where we see extreme violence simply because the director likes to revel in bloodlust. Instead, the violence in the movie, as strong and off putting as it is, is necessary to the movie. It is possible to make great movies with this level of violence – as this film proves.