I Saw The Devil (Review)
Brutal violence and relentless darkness give Ji-Woon Kim’s revenge masterpiece a mean edge that packs a powerfully visceral and emotional punch that you’re not likely to find anywhere else.
I Saw The Devil opens just as any good thriller should: quietly. The opening shot is from the interior of a vehicle, driving down a lonely road during a snowstorm. A young woman is talking to her fiancee on the phone. Her car gets stuck and a man shows up out of the darkness, offering assistance. She politely refuses. He returns shortly after, shattering her window, dragging her out of the car, and taking her to his hideout to murder her and cut her up. Such a strong contrast that comes on so suddenly is a precursor to what will follow in Ji-Woon Kim’s latest film, but does little to prepare one for what will happen in the next two hours.
Straight from the get-go, the victim’s fiancee, a highly trained government agent named Soo-hyeon Kim (Lee Byung-hun), wastes no time. He sheds a couple of tears, then asks for exactly two weeks off from work–no more, soundly rejecting his captain’s concern and offer for more time off. Two weeks is all Soo-hyeon Kim needs to catch his prey. After violently working his way down a short list of possible suspects, he locates the killer, Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik), and, after a brief and brutal fight, nearly kills him. He abstains from doing so, however, and instead crams a small tracking device down Kyung-chul’s throat and leaves him in the dirt with an envelope of money. Kim draws the killer into a diabolical game of catch-and-release, subjecting him to nearly constant psychological stress and torture. This first fight scene occurs less than halfway into the movie, with the rest being devoted to Kim’s little game.
The Good, the Bad, the Weird was my favorite foreign film of last year. With it, Ji-Woon Kim established himself as one of my new favorite auteurs of South Korean cinema and a director more than capable of handling complex sequences and stylish framing. Striking early shots, such as Soo-hyeon standing quietly with his head down at the cremation, as the women around him wail and sob. The final long take, which I will not spoil, is profound. The fight sequences are also well-choreographed and the camera movements during these feel appropriately rough and erratic without making the sequences incoherent and overly shaky. In fact, the fight sequences feel oddly artful. One scene in which three men get into a knife fight in a taxicab has the camera spinning around the taxi in one take as the men slash and stab at each other. Kim and his choreographer get creative in this movie, and the end result is a visual treat.
The film is, in many ways, a tribute to the revenge thrillers of old, such as Death Wish. In constructing this, Kim occasionally goes a bit overboard in his portrayal of his characters as two powerful forces. An example of this is a fight scene in a doctor’s office in which Su-hyeon catches a knife thrust in his direction, and then squeezes the blade for no reason. Earlier in the film, Kim establishes the dramatic impact of the first death by having several tens of reporters and officers sweeping the crime scene. Realistically, this would have destroyed all of the evidence. However, scenes like this work within the film. Kim is a bit heavy-handed as a director, but like The Good, the Bad, the Weird, it lends a surreal feel to the film as a whole with each character dominating an obvious and hyperbolic stereotype. This also carries over into the violence level of the film, which is frequently and suddenly extremely brutal. Quiet moments erupt into bloody action and torture. This is not a film for anyone with a weak stomach. When this film was first released, the Korean Ratings Board forced Kim to cut the movie down on account of the content. This DVD version is unrated, so I’m not quite sure if this is the uncut version or not.
The revenge thriller is a difficult film to make. Keeping the primary characters within their realms of good and evil while also giving the good guy adequate revenge without causing too much sympathy for the villain is a delicate balancing act that Kim pulls off magnificently. The slow descent of the main character was also handled extremely well. The ebb and flow of the brutal violence, tempered with quieter dramatic scenes, keep the film unpredictable. That unpredictability is what makes I Saw the Devil so good. The film teases each subsequent scene of vengeance, building anticipation for the next time Soo-hyeon catches his target. In its final moments, the film blindsides with a sudden eruption of emotion that had been dormant for so long throughout the film. Ending on this note leaves a profoundly empty feeling. I always give the highest of accolades to a film that can strike into an emotional core with so much power, and I Saw the Devil does just that. It’s a landmark revenge thriller, and if viewers can stomach the content, they cannot miss it.
Score: ***** (out of 5)
Rated: Not Rated (originally rated R for strong sadistic brutal violence and torture, sexuality, nudity, and language)