I SAW THE DEVIL. A must-watch for fans of brutal thrillers
When at the Cannes Film Festival in 2003, Park Chan-Wook received the Grand Prix award for Oldboy from none other than Quentin Tarantino, no one yet predicted that henceforth the capital of thrillers would shift from the land of hamburgers to South Korea. Indeed, soon after, two excellent works of the genre emerged in the United States. However, both David Fincher’s Zodiac and the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men are not entirely representative of the thriller genre, as they are laden with elements typically absent from such films. The subsequent years brought forth further outstanding thrillers from democratic Korea. Crafted in the mold of Greek tragedy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance the grotesque and spectacular Sympathy for Lady Vengeance the striking Memories of Murder and the incredibly original The Chaser all provided a splendid deviation from the washed-out formula familiar to Western audiences. The latest offspring from the same cinematic lineage, released in 2010, is I Saw the Devil directed by Kim Ji-Woon.
The film tells the tale of two men. Kyung-chul is a psychopathic murderer who kills purely for pleasure. He abducts young women and girls, inflicting unimaginable pain on them, including severing their limbs one by one. The police have been engaged in a hunt for the killer for a while, but the depraved Kyung-chul remains elusive. Joo-yeon, the daughter of a former police chief and the fiancée of a government agent, is abducted and brutally murdered by Kyung-chul one night. Her fiancé, Soo-Hyun, immediately after her burial, determines to unveil the murderer’s identity and personally exact vengeance. He vows to subject the perpetrator to a thousandfold more pain than his beloved endured. Even if it means becoming completely consumed by revenge… Kyung-chul is quickly tracked down, and he becomes the target in a game initiated by the agent.
Before delving into the core, I must address the context surrounding this controversial production. The Korean committee responsible for rating films from that country demanded that Kim edit out the most brutal scenes. Only in this revised form could the film be screened in theaters and released on video. However, the director held his ground, which resulted in… the film being banned from the silver screen. Nonetheless, as a devoted fan of Asian cinema and availing myself of the technological marvels of the present day (thanks to a clever workaround), I had the pleasure of acquainting myself with this ‘forbidden’ production. I must admit that nearly two and a half hours of viewing left a considerable, positive impression on me.
At the film’s core lie the relationships between Kyung-chul and Soo-Hyun, where the perspective of pursuer/pursued and assailant/victim constantly shifts. On the level of ideas, the film delves into the concept of revenge, addressing its stages, the paths it follows, and its consequences. I’ll be straightforward and say that Kim’s film doesn’t explore these themes in an extremely original or groundbreaking manner. What’s more, for those who have already tasted the creations of Park Chan-Wook, it might be a somewhat familiar topic. However, the standout feature of I Saw the Devil is its construction as a thriller, along with the artful portrayal of violence that contributes to building the story’s atmosphere. The shifts in perspective I mentioned earlier are executed skillfully and originally. Just as The Chaser stood out with its theme of apprehending the murderer early on and seeking evidence against him, here, the dynamic between persecutor and victim is also depicted in a fresh and engaging manner. I’m curious about how many future American productions will attempt to employ a similar approach.
The violence in the film extends beyond the mere scenes of inflicted pain, encompassing the broader panorama of suburban realities. It’s worth noting that these realities are greatly hyperbolized. In every roadside house, sadistic psychopaths may dwell, emerging into the open air only to dispose of their victims’ bodies and clothing. Even Korean taxi drivers are depicted as deviant killers, lying in wait to stab customers and toss their bodies into the trunk. This likely explains why the film was banned by the Korean rating committee. This doesn’t mean that “interpersonal violence” is marginal here. Quite the opposite. Limb severing, tendon cutting, screwdriver impalement, forced oral sex, hantel face mutilation, and two minutes of stabbing constitute the highest echelon of naturalistic on-screen violence. However, for those who have already witnessed similar Korean depictions, the shock might not be as intense as it would be for those experiencing Asian brutality for the first time.
The remarkable performances by the actors deserve attention. Choi Min-Sik embodies the humorless psychopath perfectly. The actor is fully dedicated and expressive, as fans of Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance are accustomed to. His new incarnation is a character you wouldn’t want to meet on the street for anything, especially women. Lee Byung-Hun’s portrayal of Soo-Hyun, the one pursuing Kyung-chul, is of an individual extremely determined, with an iron psyche and physical strength befitting a government agent. However, Lee doesn’t create just a cold avenger; he portrays a man who is constantly torn by emotions. Soo-Hyun evolves over time, drawing unfortunate conclusions for himself. A very fine performance indeed. In supporting roles, a few interesting characters emerge on the second and third tiers, although they don’t impact the story’s tone as significantly as the aforementioned pair. Still, the veteran actor Jeon Kuk-Hwan wrings the most out of his small role.
The film boasts a high level of craftsmanship. Fortunately, there’s no ‘Bourne’-style editing or erratic handheld camera work. Short, dynamic shots, deft editing, and numerous creatively executed scenes (the conversation between the murderer and the girl in the van, the pursuit in the greenhouse, the corridor fight, the taxi) contribute to a very favorable assessment of this aspect. The music effectively accompanies the events on screen, yet avoids manipulative tricks to evoke audience emotions. And that’s a plus.
I Saw the Devil is a unique synthesis of its illustrious, albeit different, predecessors in the genre. An intriguing script, several original twists, charismatic and ambiguous characters, and skillful execution. It’s just a pity that the climax slightly disappoints, leaving us with the bitterness of one character instead of delivering a powerful blow to the face. Nevertheless, this is a work that all fans of thrillers, brutal stories, or simply unique cinema should become acquainted with. If this is your first Korean film of this type, feel free to add an extra notch to your final rating.