A serial killer murders the beautiful fiancée of a secret agent then said secret agent tracks down the serial killer. A simple formulaic premise there no different from a huge number of Hollywood outings into crime thriller land. However, Korean film Ji-woon Kim’s ‘I Saw the Devil’ takes this overdone routine idea and turns it into a unique portrayal of an obsessive pursuit for revenge.
Bloody, brutal, stark and uncompromising in its scenes of torture if this extreme violence was handled by a lesser director it could have easily been lumped in with the media labelled so called horror sub-genre of “torture porn” but Kim also manages to make a beautifully filmed, emotionally rewarding, narratively well-structured movie that depicts the sadness caused by such violence. It features great turns from the leads with Lee Byung-hun as secret agent Soo-hyun and especially Choi Min-sik as Kyung-chul delivering one of the most memorably edgy screen villain performances ever as a serial killer who just does not give a fuck. What with some truly astonishing stand out action set-pieces as well the director completely has our undivided attention in a totally engaging film.
The hunter becomes the hunted as a deadly game of cat and mouse ensues as Soo-hyun (Byung-hun) makes a promise to his departed true love of returning the pain to her killer 1000 times more. Taking two weeks off work and disconnecting himself emotionally not allowing himself to grieve for his loss until the job done he begins a manhunt for the murderer narrowing it down to four suspects. After beating the first two senseless he investigates Kyung-chul (Min-sik) who we actually see commit the callous and savage crime in the opening scene. Discovering his lover’s engagement ring in Kyung-chi’s filthy den of murder Soo-hyun exacts his cold and calculated revenge becoming every bit the monster himself as he beats, tortures and releases Kyung repeatedly after making him swallow a transmitter (some kind of special GPS microphone capsule) while unconscious from the first attack so he can trace his every move. What price will Soo-hyun pay for the dangerous games he plays with Kyung-chul?
The first act is bursting with emotion. We see the happiness of Soo-hyun and his fiancée Joo-yun (Oh San-ha) as two people very much in love only for it to be taken away in the most inhumanely evil way possible straight after. Joo-yun pleads for her life (and somebody else’s) only for it to fall on the deaf ears of Kyung- chul giving a disturbingly abrupt non-verbal answer. The aftermath of her death shows us the sadness of the loved ones left behind by such a violent act with the discovery of her body witnessed by Soo-hyun and her father Jang (Jeon Kuk-hwan) a retired police detective. The scenes after between the two and Joo-yun’s sister Se-yun (Kim Yun-seo) handled with immense pathos towards the characters with strong performances of the grieving enhancing the melancholy makes for very moving viewing.
Going into the revenge part of the movie a line begins to blur between our protagonist and the antagonist. It becomes hard to determine who is more insane as the violence of Soo-hyun’s revenge escalates. He is an unstoppable force of vengeance inflicting incredible physical pain upon the sub-human Kyung-chul an unmovable object of evil with a total lack of humanity who laughs in the face of Soo-hyun and taunts him as he takes his punishments. We also come to question Soo-hyun’s carelessness of his consumed rage of revenge by letting go Kyung-chul over and over again and putting other innocent people in danger of this maniac. In the film’s title, ‘I Saw the Devil’ lays an ambiguous question.
The material is treated very seriously but amongst the grimness of its horrifying subject matter there is a darker than dark humour to the proceedings. Emphasis on this is brought forth with Choi Min-sik’s hilarious reactions to Lee Byung-hun’s character’s constant turning up and beating him to a pulp as he is about to dish out some evil doings upon his victims. The tone even shifts quite significantly during the comedic scenes between Kyung-chul and his cannibal friend Tae-joo and his girlfriend, which offers much needed comic relief until the tone swings right back around into disturbing darkness again when Kyung-chul wises up to Soo-hyun’s game. Park Hoon-jung’s tight script, Ji-woon Kim’s inspired direction and Lee Mo-gae’s lush cinematography keep a consistent complete control over the overall look and feel and the movie never once feels uneven. This film is also so intriguing in that it does not play out like a traditional law enforcement officer hunts serial killer story as here they meet very early on and throughout the course of the running time it is played out like a grudge match with two powerhouse performances making it all irresistibly engrossing.
I stated in the conclusion of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) and the Genesis and Execution of Evil that “Along with ‘Manhunter’ (1986), ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ (1991), ‘Seven’ (1995) and ‘American Psycho’ (2000) ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’ is one of the definitive serial killer masterpieces.” Well Ji-woon Kim’s ‘I Saw the Devil’ (2010) can now stand strongly alongside all of these very fine pieces of filmmaking. As well as being now one of the quintessential serial killer epics it also falls into the revenge category as being one of the very best of this kind as well. It stands up straight and proud with such greats as ‘Get Carter’ (1971), ‘High Plains Drifter’ (1973), ‘Death Wish’ (1974), 'Thriller: A Cruel Picture' (1974), ‘Rolling Thunder’ (1977), ‘Mad Max (1979), ‘The Crow’ (1994), ‘Kill Bill’ (2003 & 2004), ‘Dead Man’s Shoes’ (2004), Park Chan-wook’s ‘The Vengeance Trilogy’: ‘Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance’ (2002), ‘Oldboy’ (2003) and ‘Sympathy for Lady Vengeance’ (2005) etc.
Unquestionably, one of the best movies of 2010 this is highly recommended viewing. ‘I Saw the Devil’ is testament to how celluloid can achieve high art in the right creative hands.
**** out of ****
Dave J. Wilson
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