Director: Kim Ji-woon
Starring Lee Byung-hun and Choi Min-sik
Leading up to my viewing of I Saw the Devil, I had heard many things about what type of film to expect. I heard that it was a torture/revenge picture and pretty much the next big star powered film in Korean cinema. Director Kim Ji-woon is, in my opinion, one of South Korea’s best directors and one whose films I always anxiously await. To say my expectations were high is no understatement. With the massive hype and controversy surrounding the film and its stars, this film had much to live up to considering the pedigree of revenge films in South Korea as well as the return of Choi Min-sik to the screen.
The film starts with the brutal torture/murder of Joo-yun (Oh San-ha) at the hands of sadistic serial killer Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik). After completing his grisly task, Kyung-chul disposes of the body and prepares for his next opportunistic murder. When the fiancee, Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), learns of her death and experiences the ineptitude of the authorities in catching her killer, he hardens his heart and sets out to hunt and kill his beloved’s murderer. Upon finding his prey, in the middle of committing his next crime no less, Soo-hyun finds that he cannot simply ‘end him’ like he had planned but in an effort to prolong his suffering, implants him with a tracking device and deals him a painful injury before letting him go just to catch and hurt him again, like a sport fisherman releasing his catch. What follows is a dark and blood-soaked journey into the culture of serial killers in South Korea and the discovery of the darkness inside people which can emerge when the need for revenge consumes.
The two principal actors, Choi Min-sik and Lee Byung-hun, are amazing in the film as opponents struggling against each other with motives that are on the surface drastically different, but equally sinister in spirit. The structure of the film is done so that the two men pretty much only have scenes together when they have physical confrontations and moments of taunting via electronic communication. As each actor typically is alone in each of their scenes, the differences between men is made readily apparent. Lee Byung-hun’s Soo-hyun is dark, brooding, and a calculating machine with tunnel vision when it comes to accomplishing his goal. Choi Min-sik’s Kyung-chul, on the other hand, is opportunistic, sadistic, and a man whose psychotic urges are openly embraced rather than potentially suppressed like many cinematic villains. He is a man of an inhumane nature and very much is the embodiment of pure evil. The contrasting nature of these two men make the conflict on screen a tour de force of pain, brutality, and strife.
The technical aspects of the crew are on fine display in the film as well. The film is tightly edited and scored in such a way that scenes will leave the viewer wholly uncomfortable but unable to turn away. There are a number of set pieces which are each exciting and necessary to advancing the story. Clocking in 141 minutes, I Saw the Devil is not a short film by any stretch, but subsequent viewings really reveal the meticulous planning and tightly filmed picture which is the final product. Also, of particular note is the makeup effects and prosthetics, as the film has not shortage of bloodletting, each instance of their use was realistic and cringe-worthy in the right way.
In the end, I Saw the Devil stands as visceral and impacting experience and exists as an example of why I watch Asian cinema. It is challenging and upon the film’s final frame, you will be contemplating the film for days afterward. In truth, I had seen the film quite a while ago, months actually between viewing and final word typed, but writing this review was a process that I did in parts so that I could articulate the film in text the way I think it deserves to be portrayed. It is not an easy film to watch but for those that decide to take it on, they will find an engaging and beautifully structured experience that is not easily forgotten.
You may enjoy this film if you also enjoyed: Oldboy, A Bittersweet Life, The Man From Nowhere