[I Saw The Devil
Directed by Kim Ji-Woon
Starring: Choi Min-Sik, and Byung Hun-Lee
MPAA: Unrated – Contains graphic violence, nudity, sexuality, and language]
Of all the countries in the foreign film department, none have been quite as engaging as the crazy bastards in South Korea. It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly Korean cinema had caught the public eye of the American conscious, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it was due in large part to the classic among cult classics: Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy.
Asian countries in general have some of the most interesting foreign films out today. China has their kung-fu movies (See any Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee film), Japan has anime and horror films like Ju-on: The Grudge, Ringu, and Pulse. While Korea has a surprisingly diverse amount of genres tackled by their big-name directors such as monster movies (The Host, which is Korea’s highest grossing film of all time as of this writing), vampires films (Thirst), and mysteries (Mother and Memories of Murder), they’re mainly known for one thing: Revenge films. Or, to put it more frankly: The Revenge Films. And to put it more specifically: Park Chan-Wook’s revenge trilogy consisting of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Lady Vengeance, and, of course, Oldboy.
Now, cut to another Korean director: Kim Ji-Woon. This is another director from Korea to be lauded for. He’s created the searing psychological horror film A Tale of Two Sisters (Which was disappointingly remade into The Uninvited), the gangster epic A Bittersweet Life, and oddly enough a Korean western with The Good, The Bad, The Weird.
In his latest film, I Saw The Devil, Kim Ji-Woon has decided to look at the success of Park Chan-Wooks revenge trilogy and see what he could do differently with it in his hands. His answer: Not a damn thing…but let’s make it 10,000 times more brutal and violent. That always gets the job done.
I Saw The Devil is the story of Soo-Hyun (Played by Lee Byung-hun, who was also in Kim Ji-Woon’s A Bittersweet Life and The Good, The Bad, The Weird), a secret agent who’s stricken with the desire of revenge when he sees that his wife has been brutally murdered and cut up into bits by a sadistic killer named Kyung-Chul (Played by Choi Min-Sik, who you may remember as the protagonist of another Korean revenge film I’ve mentioned numerous times already: Oldboy. See how I connect these things?). Now filled with nothing but rage, Soo-hyun finds Kyung-chul, but doesn’t kill him. Instead, he knocks him out cold, implants a GPS/microphone in his mouth, and uses that to follow him and make Kyung-chul’s life a living hell.
The entire movie basically consists of a cat-and-mouse game of wits and brutality between these two guys, ensuing into an astounding amount of violence. It’s probably Korea’s most violent film, so far, and this is coming from the guys behind Oldboy, which featured a man cutting off his own tongue. Not only are some of the scenes in I Saw The Devil violent enough, already, they all have a brutal feel to them, thanks to some excellent gore effects, stylish directing and cinematography, and (literally) bone-crushing sound design. One scene in particular involving a “smiley face” takes the gruesomeness up to eleven.
While much attention has been brought to performances, style, and brutality, not much effort has been put into character development, emotional weight, or a remotely new or interesting take on the “revenge isn’t all that good” message that’s already been explored in better Korean films. While the performances are certainly strong, we don’t really have much of a reason to care about Soo-hyun, why he would suddenly snap as hard as he does in the film other than “cuz he luvs his wief nd stufff”, or how his vengeful actions affect Kyung-chul, and vice versa.
And while the message of “sometimes, revenge makes you more of a monster than the one you’ve been after all along” is still handled somewhat effectively and does lead to thought-provocation, there isn’t really much of an interesting spin on it other than the great lengths the film goes to showing the brutality and aggression our protagonist feels.
Thankfully, there is one element that is handled with uniqueness: Suspense. Probably the most unique thing about I Saw The Devil is how it’s almost a reverse slasher film: The killers and the bad guys are the ones being hunted and dispatched in gruesome, brutal ways by a vengeful “good guy”, rather than the other way around. This gives the cat-and-mouse sequences an interesting little spin of suspense. It’s hard to feel tension for the character you’re supposed to be rooting against, but Kim Ji-Woon still pulls it off. Whenever Soo-hyun begins his hunt, you really do get a sense that serious shit is gonna go down, and that it won’t bode well to whoever it is he’s pissed at.
Kim Ji-Woon definitely brings his message across that Soo-hyun becomes a much bigger monster than Kyung-chul…which is unfortunately also another drawback, as Kim Ji-Woon’s thought-provoking message is battered into the viewer with the subtlety of a shark-attack…on a train. It isn’t quite up to “preachy”, but it’s certainly ham-fisted.
So, what we’re left with is an effective but insubstantial thriller.
Final Verdict: I Saw The Devil doesn’t have much new to say, the characters are kind of thin, and it heavily borrows from superior Korean revenge films. Despite all this, it’s definitely worth checking out. It’s suspenseful, gory, well-directed and shot, brutal, and backed with some fine performances from its veteran cast. If you’re a fan of Korea’s latest work, specifically Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance trilogy, this should still satisfy.
That’s all for now.
See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to give you a permanent smiley face…