Movie Review: “I Saw the Devil”

  Directed by Kim Jee-woon and written by Park Hoon-jung, I was looking forward to my chance to revisit and write about I Saw the Devil again. I had wrote about the film once prior back in 2014, but I feel like I had only scratched the surface of what I wanted to say about the film. Since first discovering the film, I have come to think of it as the apex of South Korean cinema, or, at the very least, the apex of the crime-thriller, ugly side of South Korean cinema. Starring Lee Byung-hun and Choi Min-sik, the film was well received by critics and moviegoers alike. And although most of its appeal has been kept in South Korea, I have heard its name thrown around a lot over the years. As a matter of fact, it is one of the only South Korean DVDs I actually own, mostly because it was one of the only South Korean films I was able to discover in the wild. The film made its premiere in the United States at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and received a little theatrical release Stateside as well.

   I Saw the Devil is primarily about two characters, prefaced by the actors I named earlier, and their confrontation and subsequent back in forth with each other. Kim Soo-hyun is an NIS agent who, by all accounts, seems like a normal, everyday man. Obviously, as a policeman, he has at least brushed shoulders with the criminal underbelly, but nothing would have prepared him for his encounter with Jang Kyung-chul. Played by Choi Min-ski (who South Korean movie fans might have seen in Oldboy), Jang Kyung-chul is a psychopathic serial killer, intent on running roughshod through anyone that comes in his way. Kim Soo-hyun is caught in the crosshairs of one of Jang’s heinous attacks when his fiancee is brutally murdered. I Saw the Devil focuses itself on the changes Kim’s character goes through as he seeks revenge against Jang.

   I Saw the Devil is a very harsh, very mean-spirited film through and through. This is a film that does not shy away from brutality, nor does it shy away from depicting Jang Kyung-chul’s various rapes he has committed (although it is never especially explicit in their depiction, they are more than implied). This is something I would imagine could offset one or more of you, and I can understand that.

   Readers Digested writes about a lot of dark subject-matter and, for that reason, I operate under the assumption that most, if not all of you, are capable of understanding how it should be taken and interpreted. Storytelling can be harsh, and, in order to truly depict the ugliness of the world for the artform, I do appreciate when filmmakers are unafraid to ruffle some feathers and go in the darker side of the spectrum. So long as it serves the storyline and is not particularly gratuitous, I am not likely to be rattled or deterred.

   However, I also understand and respect that some of you may be a little too uneasy for it, and I know that, with a lot of horrors we talk about, like a slasher film, there is a thicker barrier on the realness of the subject matter portrayed. The act of murder in a slasher film, for instance, is bloodier and more theatric, whereas, what is inflicted here is colder, with a blurrier barrier. For this film, I like that, because I think it adds a lot thematically, but I know that it won’t be for everyone else.

   In the end, I land squarely in the positive section when I write about this film, however, I can admit to initial, knee-jerk reactions in the film’s progression. I believe that is, in itself, one of the more interesting aspects about I Saw the Devil (or, for instance, Oldboy) in-comparison to other more straightforward narratives is that they are more open to interpretation and stay with you after the credits roll. This is not really the story of a good character extracting revenge on a bad character, per se. The character we consider as good, simply isn’t. The character we consider as good shows complete and total disregard for the casualties caught in the crosshairs of his operation, whether they are raped or killed (or worse – expelled). Thus, it is more applicable to say that the story of I Saw the Devil is about a character who has become obsessed about the idea of revenge, with tunnel-vision about anything and everyone else.

   This feels, at least, conceptually, like a spiritual brethren to Park Chan-wook‘s Vengeance Trilogy, as it grotesquely depicts the consequences of ones’ actions and the cost revenge and obsession can have on you.

   I Saw the Devil is impressively shot, benefited by the director’s steady-hand, the high-production value, and the viscerally engaging narrative weaved together. A lot of individuals might not react well to the amount of violence, bloodshed, and misconduct that is depicted, and I would imagine many of you reading won’t take very well to it either. I can respect that, but, at the same time, I don’t think this is an instance where a filmmaker is being unnecessarily grotesque or needs to reel in certain pulses (a criticism I had with Park’s Mr. Vengeance film). Instead, I think it is consistent across the board and, if not always completely necessary, then appropriate to what he is trying to accomplish.

Although western horror, at the most fun of times, can depict murder as a glossy, over-the-top act, or the murderers, less as serial killers and more like serial slashers, that is not  representative of the truth. And, the truth, for better or for worse, should be allowed to be told. For every offensive thing you see in a film or a book, there is bound to be a worse real life alternative to that. That’s unsettling, but you can’t fault an artist for holding up a mirror to what’s around them.

   I found myself invested in the characters. The main-protagonist is similar in ways to a silent man-of-action type, where I am more interested than what he will do than what he has to say. Meanwhile, Choi Min-sik is allowed to be the nastiest of the nasties, feeling unhinged and yet subdued, and finding a balance between them that makes him unpredictable and immersive. It is a classic scenario where you want to see the bad guy get his comeuppance, while, at the same time, wondering if another bad guy may have been made in turn.

    I enjoyed I Saw the Devil a lot and if I had to comprise a shortlist of South Korean films to recommend to somebody, I can’t imagine a scenario (no matter how many we end up reviewing) where it does not make the cut.

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