Written by: Park Hoon-jung
Directed by: Kim Ji-woon
Starring: Byung-hun Lee, Min-sik Choi, and Gook-hwan Jeon
Reviewed by: Brett G.
ďRememberÖyour nightmareís only getting worse.Ē
My limited experience with Korean cinema leads me to believe that country might be obsessed with vengeance. Of course, thatís an unfair generalization that says a lot more about me than it does about them, but some of the finest tales of revenge and murder Iíve ever seen have come from there. Specifically, theyíve come from one director--Park Chan-wook, who masterfully explored these themes in his Vengeance Trilogy (which is highlighted by the stunning Oldboy) and Thirst. This time around, itís Kim Ji-woon (the director of A Tale of Two Sisters, which was re-imagined as The Uninvited) getting in on the action with I Saw the Devil, which continues the grand guignol tradition set forth by those other films.
Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) is a ruthless serial killer who targets young women; after abducting them, he usually subjects them to inhumane tortures and disfigures them before killing them. His latest victim is the fiancť of secret agent Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), who vows to take revenge and make the psychopath feel her pain. Not content to simply exact vengeance, Soo-hyun engages in a torturous, obsessive pursuit that may cause him to become a monster himself.
That old Klingon proverb says that ďrevenge is a dish best served cold.Ē With all due respect, I Saw the Devil says, ďfuck that.Ē Instead, it chooses to gradually warm up and bake its revenge for over two hours, letting it simmer in blood and guts before finally boiling over in an intense climax. You could call the events of the film a demented cat and mouse game, but Iíd refer to it as a psychotic tennis match. Kyung-chul gets the opening volley by killing off Soo-hyunís girl, but the secret agent fires back in kind by giving the serial killer a dose of his own medicine. And so it goes back and forth for much of the filmís running time; indeed, these guys go the full five sets in a bloody knock-down, drag-out slugfest thatís entirely joyless.
Thatís just as it should be, though, as I Saw the Devil is an exhausting and unrelenting journey through violence. Plenty of films have observed the line between cop and criminal as well as sanity and insanity, but this one isnít so concerned with the morals divided by those lines. Soo-hyunís vigilante justice is fueled by more than retribution, as simple revenge isnít enough; the film draws attention to this fact and compares him to a hunter enjoying stalking his prey. Thatís as close as the film gets on commenting on its own events, as itís mostly detached and content to just present the savagery as it unfolds. Weíre naturally horrified at watching a good man embrace his madness and do terrible things, but the film is smart enough to toe a fine line: it never shows sympathy for its devil, nor does it glorify the action of its hero.
The two are polar opposites (in theory) and are beautifully realized by their respective actors. We donít get to spend a whole lot of time with Soo-hyun when heís a happy man; however, those few early minutes reveal a man with a zest for life. Thatís promptly bludgeoned out of him after heís forced to endure an emotional hell that transforms him into a machine thatís fuelled by bloodlust. Itís a remarkable transformation that crystallizes the stages of grief, as we see him move from anguish to cold, resolved acceptance. His counterpart is Choi Min-sik, who also starred in the Oldboy; his Kyung-chul is a soulless demon who exudes cold, calculating menace; he has an apparent hatred of women, but the film doesnít bother to explain his psychosis. Heís a sadist whose pleasure is obvious, but heís also the type of guy who will dismember a body while drinking his morning coffee.
Thereís an early scene where a young boy finds the severed ear of a victim; this is surely a homage to Blue Velvet, which is appropriate since I Saw the Devil captures grotesque beauty in an almost Lynch-like fashion. Despite its obsession with violence, itís elegant and stylish when it wants to be; sometimes, the camera work is downright hypnotic. Thereís an obvious clash there with the bluntness of the filmís brutality, which is abundant. Bodies are tortured and mutilated, but this isnít done to leave you in awe or even to gross you out--instead, itís the filmís way of making you gaze into the eyes of the devil and realize his cruelty. This is the sort of sick, perverse flick that gives horror movies a bad name in most circles, but it's absolutely necessary depravity.
Besides, the sick gore isnít the movieís only trick because itís wickedly suspenseful too. The score often ramps up to reflect a manic quality that aims to disorient, and it succeeds (along with the rest of the film) in assaulting your senses (and maybe your sensibilities). I might stab you in the guts a few dozen times first, but it eventually burrows right into your brain. After touring the festival circuit and select theaters for the past few months, the film finally comes home from Magnet and Magnolia, who have released DVD and Blu-ray offerings. The high-def release is features a spectacular presentation; youíll get a flawless 1.85 transfer and a DTS-MA Korean track that do the film justice. Beyond that, thereís a few special features waiting for you in the form of deleted scenes and a behind-the-scenes featurette. I Saw the Devil is a disturbing movie--that description gets thrown around a lot, but this one earns it. Though the film is soaked in splattery viscera, it's more haunting in its profound despair and sadness. Buy it!
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