Many people will be quick to criticize “I Saw the Devil” as being excessively and unnecessarily violent. Indeed, it is an unrelentingly grim cinematic experience as we watch a serial killer chop up beautiful young women into little pieces and the boyfriend of one of them getting his revenge on the evil bastard. I’m guessing there will be a number of critics as well who will say Americans would never come up with such graphic depictions, but we know otherwise (“Saw” or “Hostel” anyone?).
But unlike other horror movies, “I Saw the Devil” does not exist to simply gross us out or make us uncomfortable as humanly possible. There’s a real story here amidst all the carnage about the hollowness of wanting revenge and of what it does to those who seek and get it. But Jee-woon Kim, the same man who directed “The Good, The Bad, The Weird,” has created a motion picture which finds brutally fresh new twists that keep us pinned to our seats for the entire two and a half hour running time. Yes, it is truly unrelenting.
The movie starts off with the beautiful Joo-yeon (Oh San-Ha) talking with her fiancé Soo-Hyun (Lee Byung-hun) on the phone while she is waiting in her car on a snowy road out in the middle of nowhere. Before you know it, a man by the name of Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) viciously attacks and knocks her out. Back at his grungy workshop, Joo-yeon begs for her life and tells Kyung-chul she is pregnant, but it does no good. Kyung-chul’s face is an enigma as you are not sure what he is feeling at the moment. You want to think he has some form of empathy in his rotten soul, but to him this is a luxury he cannot afford. Either way, it doesn’t stop him from chopping away at Joo-yeon with a rusty hatchet.
Upon finding her severed head in a nearby lake, Soo-Hyun, a special agent, vows to make her attacker feel the same exact pain he made his victims feel. From there, the movie turns into a cat and mouse game, and we begin to wonder which of them is the more vicious and violent. Unlike most American revenge thrillers where we can tell the hero apart from the bad guy, the line between them is hard at times to make out.
The first thing I want to say about “I Saw the Devil” is just how beautiful the cinematography by Lee Mo-gae is. It’s kind of a cross between the vivid colors of Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” and the immensely cold and snowy landscape of “Let the Right One In.” I’m guessing Kim Jee-woon and Lee Mo-gae were inspired by the filmmakers of both movies, and even he succeeds in finding a beauty amidst all the hideous carnage which goes on. The image of the snow proves to be a metaphor for how cold the soul of the two main characters are or have since become, and things grow colder for them all the way towards the movie’s messy climax.
In terms of acting, Choi Min-sik’s performance stands above everyone else’s here. Choi is best known for his amazing and unforgettable performance in Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy.” Throughout the movie’s running time, he never tries to hide the fact his character of Kyung-chul is a pure psychopath and a manipulator of emotions he is unable to fully experience on his own. It’s a brave performance which doesn’t hold back anything, and it makes you wonder what depths the actor went to in playing such a twisted human being.
Lee Byung-hun also deserves points for bravery as the now fiancé-less Soo-Hyun. This is the character we most easily identify with here, but he soon becomes “I Saw the Devil’s” most tragic one as well. We can’t really blame him for wanting revenge and to torture this killer without a conscience, but as the movie goes on, we see how his quest for vengeance it is destroying whatever is left of his damaged soul. Lee makes us care about this man even as he becomes almost as depraved as Kyung-Chul. Even when he slices off a key part of Kyung’s body, we still follow him even if we are increasingly repelled by his actions. His conscience comes out in the form of Soo-Hyun’s family, but their sane take on the situation is not enough to pull him back from the abyss of hatred he is forever trapped in.
Make no mistake, “I Saw the Devil” is a seriously violent motion picture. It feels like forever since I’ve seen so much blood spurting out of the human body on the silver screen. I also can’t remember the last time a guillotine was used so predominantly in a movie either. All the same, like any great Argento movie, it’s rendered in the most beautiful cinematic fashion. This is not your average “Friday the 13th” sequel where things are thrown together in the cheapest way possible. The colors are vividly realized, making everything we see here all the more cinematically gruesome.
Once you get past the seemingly unending carnage, you will see how these two men pretty much deserve one another. “I Saw the Devil” is a strong character piece featuring people who, in any other movie, would be at opposite ends of the law-abiding spectrum, but who have more in common with one another than they initially realized. While a part of us wants to see this sick bastard suffer horribly, there’s another part slowly reminding us how we can suffer just as much in wanting an eye for an eye. It’s also full of twists and turns you cannot see coming, and none of them seems convoluted in the slightest. The movie is full of surprises, many of them incredibly grim. If you thought “Harry Brown” was dark, this will redefine the term for you.
Now look, I am not saying it is bad to like revenge/retribution movies. Lord knows we need them every once in a while in order to exercise the parts of our psyche which are hopefully ruled over by common sense. But sometimes we need a cinematic reminder of how wrong it can be to get what you wish for. Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible” was one of the harshest examples of this, and “I Saw the Devil” is not far behind.