V iolence, revenge, redemption, all three of these words came to mind when I screened "I Saw the Devil". Jee-woon Kim's diabolical thriller out does M. Night Shyamalan's "The Devil" easily, hands down. Are there devils in this film? I guarantee you that there are, and these are real. Choi Min-sik plays the evil Kyung-Chul, a serial killer that would give the BAU Team of "Criminal Minds" a run for their money. Byung-hun Lee plays the secret agent whose pregnant fiancée is brutally murdered in the first ten minutes of the film, and he seeks revenge. Unlike the Bronson or the Eastwood films of the 70's, I Saw the Devil is wicked, suspenseful, vicious, and most of all moral. For almost two hours of watching this story unfold in the most unusual and engaging way, subtitled in English, and violent to the core. Not rated, but take my word for it, this film is rated at least R.
The film starts out typically enough; it is a cold South Korean winter night. A young women, stuck in the mud and snow, waiting for a tow truck, is talking to her fiancée on the phone. A school bus approaches, a lone occupant, is within. The woman rolls down her window just a crack, and the guy, hooded, tells her that he can change her tire and get her out. Her fiancée, on the other end of the phone, singing love songs to her, cautions her to wait for the truck. Kim Soo-hyeon, Joo-yeon's soon to be husband, is well dressed in a nondescript suit, visible behind his ear is a wire leading to an ear-bud, in his left ear. He is either working for an equivalent to the US secret service, FBI, or CIA. Joo-yeon tells the helpful gentleman that she will wait. However, not taking her refusal, he breaks the window, and savagely beats the woman, in the head, shoulders, or anywhere he can. The rage that Choi Min-sik portrays makes Hannibal Lecter seem like your everyday Julia Childs. Beaten, naked, and bloody, the killer takes the young woman back to his lair and chains her up. At this point, the audience is hoping for a rape scene, or more beating. What happens instead would make the Marquis de Sade proud (I can't believe I just wrote that). Joo-yeon, pleading for her life, with what little life she has left, tells Kyung-Chul that she is pregnant. It doesn't matter; Kyung-Chul dismembers her. First are the hands, then the legs, and finally the head. The next scene displays how differently cultures handle homicides, in the United States we are used to seeing police barricading off a police scene from the press. Here, Jee-woon Kim shows us pure pandemonium; a crowd has gathered along the shore of a wash, running under a freeway bridge. The girl's father, Jang (Jeon Kuk-hwan), is there in what soon becomes a heart wrenching scene, as one of the searchers finds his daughter's head. Also, there in the distance is Soo-hyun, stands, and vows vengeance. Although vengeance is one of the main themes, Jee-woon Kim and writer Hoon-jung Park never forget their Confucius; "Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves." This theme lies just beneath the surface at all times, and Soo-hyun is almost constantly reminded of this fact throughout the film.
Joo-yeon's father, a Detective on the police force for over 30 years, gives his almost future son in-law the case files. Taking off from being a secret agent for two weeks, Soo-hyun goes after the obvious suspects, ones that have already been investigated for similar crimes in the past. Like the psychotic Dark Knight - Batman, Soo-hyun takes out the first two suspects brutally and without prejudice. While checking out the third suspect, Soo-hyun stumbles upon Kyung-Chul's locked cabinet full of trophies. Purses, shoes, clothing of the women that Kyung-Chul has killed over the years, all found. In another room, Soo-hyun discovers the torture chamber where the woman he loved, died. In a drainage hole, Soo-hyun finds Joo-yeon's engagement ring. Canvasing the farm area behind the house, he comes across Kyung-Chul in the process of committing another rape and torture of a young schoolgirl. Before the girl is truly harmed, Soo-hyun and Kyung-Chul fight it out; in an action sequence that I can honestly say was as good as, if not better than a Jason Bourne battle. No documentary, shaky camera, no over acting that is typical of Asian films of the past, Soo-hyun triumphs over Kyung-Chul.
Like an R rated version of Shakespeare, the story doesn't end here. Instead of ending Kyung-Chul pathetic and evil life, Soo-hyun instead shoves a GPS tracker down the creature's throat, and breaks the man's wrist. Leaving evil alive, rather than ending the story here, director Jee-woon Kim wants us to question the morality of his protagonist, Soo-hyun. Giving his prey some money to live on with, Kyung-Chul hitches a ride on a taxi cab that for some reason is traveling the back roads outside of Seoul. The cab stops for him as he walks along the road in the dark. The driver is uncannily happy, and Kyung-Chul is prepared to take the unsuspecting cabbie. However, the cab driver reveals that there is another passenger in the cab, who, like the driver looks somewhat unnerving and suspicious. Kyung-Chul attacks both the driver and his passenger, with a knife hidden in his boot. Stabbing, anywhere and everywhere he can on both of the victims, careening out of control, the car smashing into a rail, and crashing into a ditch. Looking for supplies Kyung-Chul checks the trunk to discover that the two passengers are, in fact, killers themselves. Killers upon killers walk onto the stage in this film -- Jee-woon Kim has plenty of them, ready for your inspection. Another assault on a young nurse in a small-town doctor's office, and once again, Soo-hyun arrives, beats the killer, and saves the day. Like a blood hound, the tracking device keeping Soo-hyun on target, the punishment that he inflicts on Kyung-Chul turns more gruesome and less human.
Once again, after catching his prey, the hunter returns the prey to hunt another day. Like a cat playing with a mouse, we question who the real devil in this movie is. Which character is truly evil; the killer or the hunter?
Sinking deeper into depravity, Kyung-Chul seeks out some former comrades from his militant old days, and we discover that his big burley friend and his pretty lady friend are cannibals. The story progresses and with each capture and release Kyung-Chul takes a bigger beating and is released again into the world. The police are closing in on both Kyung-Chul and Soo-hyun and time is running out for the both of them. Kyung-Chul does not stop, each time he murders or beats someone to a bloody pulp, he does so with apathy, and utilizing anger as a motivation, you could see in the man's eyes that like a killer white shark that his soul is dead, and his moral compass is utterly broken. No remorse, no pity for his victims, he laughs and mocks them as they lay on the ground bleeding. Once the hunted and now the hunted Kyung-Chul reverses positions and takes control of the Soo-hyun's mind and soul, driving him even deeper into immorality and perdition.
The story of murder, revenge, duty, and justice is well thought out and not afraid to show the audience the truth of this kind of absolute evil. Like Jason, Freddy, and Michael Myers of the 80's horror genre, I Saw the Devil embraces all of them in the character of Kyung-Chul. Credit must go to actor Min-sik Choi. His portrayal of a psychotic serial killer is dead on. His facial expressions portray a man whose only reason to live, is to kill. Portraying a man, beaten, battered, stabbed, broken, and humiliated, Min-sik Choi is creepier than Anthony Hopkins, discussing fava beans, a man's liver, and a fine Chianti. Byung-hun Lee's Soo-hyun character on the other hand goes through the film with almost expressionless grim determination. Only near the end when the stakes have risen beyond his control does he finally show emotion. Part of those emotions is for the horrors that he has committed in the name of justice. Other emotions that Byung-hun Lee portrays are because he realizes that he is losing his sanity and for the loss of his soul. Both actors play their parts with a sense of subtlety and sincerity that is both believable and scary. Unlike horror films made here in the West, the violence in not gratuitous, it is necessary to show the sheer lack of humanity that evil incarnate has for his random victims. I Saw the Devil also teaches us that not everything happens for a reason. Sometimes, these random acts of violence are, in fact, just that, random acts of violence. No rhyme, no reason, just death for those in Kyung-Chul's way. In making a rash promise to his dead beloved, Soo-hyun at that moment sells his soul to the Devil. In doing so he takes on many of the qualities of which he is sworn to fight and despise. The greatest evil in the world is to become what you hate, and Soo-hyun's soul now belongs to Kyung-Chul.
Released on March 4, 2011, I Saw the Devil played in only selected cities throughout the world. Despite the violence and the subject matter, I liked I Saw the Devil as a film that reminds us that evil is not a supernatural entity, nor is it necessary that evil is portrayed in the traditional imagery of the cloven hoofed, horned, pan-like creature. Evil resides in all of us to a degree, and sometimes individuals like Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Kyung-Chul are, in fact, Evil Incarnate.
"I Saw the Devil" came out to South Korean audiences on August 12, 2010. US audiences didn't see the film until the Sundance film festival in January of 2011. The US distributor, Magnet Releasing, allowed US viewers to see the film in selected theaters around the country.
Genre: Crime, Drama, Horror, Thriller
Staring: Min-sik Choi, Byung-hun Lee, In-seo Kim
Director: Kim Jee-woon
Producer(s): Jon Avnet, Jordan Kerner
Writer: Hoon-jung Park
Running Time: 98 minutesRelease Date: 8/12/2010
Originally published on Associated Content on Apr 11, 2011 by Robert Barbere