I Saw the Devil is a film I would have likely gravitated toward in my early teen years, when my buddies and I used to rent horror fare ranging from Hellraiser to The Dead Zone to, ahem, Faces of Death in an effort to view the scariest, grossest and most shocking movies possible. I Saw the Devil is undoubtedly one of the most gruesome flicks in recent memory—but there’s more on Korean director Kim Jee-woon’s mind than mere gore.
Part serial killer thriller, part revenge epic, I Saw the Devil begins with the grisly murder of a woman at the hands of the psychopathic Kyung-chul (Oldboy’s Choi Min-sik), who tortures her and chops her body into pieces. She’s not his first victim, but since she’s the daughter of a retired police chief and the fiancé of special agent Soo-hyun (The Good, the Bad, the Weird’s Lee Byung-hyun), her death brings additional urgency to the chase.
Naturally, the police must follow standard procedures in their investigation. Not so Soo-hyun, who’s understandably obsessed with tracking down the killer by any means necessary and issuing what he hopes will be some therapeutic beat-downs in the process.
I Saw the Devil’s first surprise is that Soo-hyun finds the killer barely a third of the way into the movie. But rather than hand him over to the police, he decides to enact his own unique form of revenge, with the goal of making Kyung-chul feel as much pain as his fiancé. Once he’s hatched his elaborate plan, unforeseen challenges and consequences arise, and Soo-hyun is forced to wrestle with whether he must become a monster in order to defeat the monster.
Since serial killer and revenge movies have been made, remade and ripped-off ad nauseam, Jee-woon faces the challenge of taking a played-out genre in a new direction. He’s got a good track record in this area—last year’s The Good, the Bad, the Weird was a fresh and exciting take on the spaghetti western and one of 2010’s most underrated movies. In the case of I Saw the Devil, he attempts to break new ground by taking violence and revenge to the extreme, and the results are mixed.
The good news is that watching Soo-hyun dive headlong into the proverbial abyss in his quest for vengeance makes for fascinating viewing. It’s entertaining to have our desire to see Kyung-chul suffer for his sins fulfilled, but Jee-woon raises the stakes by forcing even the most revenge-thirsty viewer to grapple with whether the end justifies the means.
On the down side, I Saw the Devil’s over-the-top gore and credulity-straining scenarios don’t always mesh well with the film’s more sobering story elements. And the one-dimensional female characters are a bit of a buzz kill.
Fortunately, Kyung-chul and Soo-hyun give performances that represent the genre at its peak. Playing the blackest, most reprehensible of characters, Kyung-chul is bone-chilling even when carrying out gruesome acts that might provoke snickers in the hands of a lesser actor.
Following his superlative turn in The Good, the Bad, the Weird, Byung-hyun is absolutely brilliant here, skillfully conveying icy cool, explosive rage and weary sadness as the situation dictates. Teaming with Jee-woon and cinematographer Mogae Lee, he also nails several exciting action sequences.
As the film reaches its gory conclusion, the violence and vengeance certainly rate as scary, gross and shocking. But it’s the struggle to maintain one’s humanity amidst senseless cruelty, embodied in Soo-hyun’s sad eyes as he comes to grips with all he’s lost, that gives I Saw the Devil its staying power.
“I Saw the Devil” opens in Atlanta on March 25 at Landmark’s Midtown Art Cinema.
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