If you already know what Jee-Woon Kim’s I Saw the Devil is about and want to see it, I have no intention of convincing you otherwise. What this Korean slice of brutality offers I describe as the most artful, well acted, smartly presented torture porn in the history of movies I wish I hadn’t seen.
Devil takes pages from better Korean revenge flicks with a side of David Fincher, but this particular bloodbath stands entirely on its own as a unique entry amongst a genre that is almost always unsure of what it wants. Sit down, sip soda, say goodbye to your date in five… four…
You probably get the idea. If SAWs one through three dee were a chain of Burger Kings, Jee-Woon Kim’s attempt is a higher class of hamburger. He’s got a taste for the flavor, but she still recoils from the calories.
Perhaps the most original aspect in this one is the use of serial killer as victim. One day, (depicted in the first five minutes) a beast of a man, played by the unwaveringly excellent actor Min-sik Choi of Oldboy fame, hammer once again in hand, bludgeons, kidnaps, rapes, and flays alive the pregnant fiancé of someone you do not want to cross, someone with an earpiece and a suit. That attire is all we know of our protagonist, but it’s all we need. The rest is just watching this guy go where Jack Baur fears to tread.
He plays a game of catch-and-release with the savage man, thereby turning into something similar. “One who is hunting the monster must be careful not to become the monster himself.” You’ve probably quoted this from Batman at least once on Facebook. That’s ok, because Friedrich Nietzsche has been too dead for the last one hundred years to care about his royalty payments.
However unimaginative in this regard, I Saw the Devil aims to lure us with violence, then asks us to reconsider our eagerness in paying for it. Kick-Ass tried the same thing last year and both cases aren’t much more than straight exploitation with a vaguely tacked on morality. Maybe we’re not bothered by our bloodlust because the film satisfies it so well. Additionally, the visual presentation here isn’t on par with the director’s A Bittersweet Life but there’s definitely a well conceived tapestry of darkness.
As I consider Bittersweet, I can’t help but remember the ice rink stabbing in that picture. I wonder if Wayne Kramer’s Running Scared somehow got more exposure in South Korea than it did here. If you haven’t seen that film, it’s a trashy movie that somehow ventures into the enjoyable with the sheer number of unclean personalities woven well beyond common coincidence. When I Saw the Devil’s Kyung-Chul bumps into like-minded murderers within walking distance of his most recently interrupted kill, it satisfies on that same level of absurdity. Let’s face it, nothing buffs runtime better than cannibal humor.
The hero allows more assaults to begin to give Kyung-Chul a sense of accomplishment before taking it from him with each choreographed beating. He cuts short the killer’s fun only just before the rapes and murders can be completed. Does this effectively make us wonder how selfish our revenge fantasies are? At the same time, Kyung-Chul’s torment is a wonderful source of black humor, again provided by Min-sik Choi’s ability as an actor. His cool-as-a-sea-cucumber slicked back hair is complemented by a commanding sense of personal style. At times, this film is a blast to behold. It’s like watching an Asian Johnny Cash impersonator knocked off his stool and therein lies the problem.
Devil celebrates the sickos too well to condemn, the latter being its purpose intended. When the film isn’t cashing in on horror freakouts, it drags through unclear avenues of meaning set against a wintery backdrop, a cocktail of sadism and snow akin to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, now being remade by David Fincher to bring things full circle.
That film was based on a book originally titled Men Who Hate Women. I Saw the Devil spends so much time rinse-wash-and-repeating its battle of ex-men that the drug wears off with almost two hours left to go. At that point it’s simply Men Who Hate Men Who Hate Women, and just like the Swedish counterpart, it leaves me lukewarm with a one-note underlined message of ethical ambiguity.
But hey, the tense feeling of I Saw the Devil survived well after my enjoyment and respect for it did. Back to the hamburger, maybe this one’s just another matter of taste or lack thereof. Movies over-occupied by enduring evil in the heart of man (The Searchers, No Country for Old Men, Zodiac) never impress me with their affectless realism. I’m also not particularly fond of the horror/thriller hybrid either, but that’s not to say I haven’t seen something decent within it. Recommendations remain with Fincher’s Se7en and Jee-Woon Kim’s A Tale of Two Sisters.
Toby Jones: While not particularly deep and not especially innovative in its deconstruction of revenge, I Saw the Devil soars as a thriller. The action scenes are leaps and bounds ahead of anything America has done lately and the suspense is palpable. That the film manages to sustain audience interest over its 2.5 hour runtime is especially amazing. Placed up against the works of other South Korean juggernauts such as Bong Joon-Ho and Park Chan-Wook, the film is decent. When compared to an equivalent film churned out by an American studio, it is incredible. See it for how successful it is as at depicting action and conveying a mood, don’t mind that its storytelling and morality are somewhat flawed. 72 – Good.