One of the most eagerly anticipated films of 2010 also turned out to be one of the most controversial, with acclaimed Korean director Kim Jee Woon’s “I Saw the Devil” making headlines as an extremely brutal affair that had to be cut for its original domestic release. A bleak revenge thriller revolving around a renegade agent hunting down the serial killer who butchered his woman, the film reunites Kim with top stars Lee Byung Hun, who last worked with the director on his Kimchi Western “The Good, The Bad, The Weird” and Choi Min Sik, who featured in his debut “The Quiet Family”. As expected given the multiple award winning talent involved, the film is every bit as thought provoking as it is intense, and sees Kim offering up a far darker take on his usual themes, though one which still comes with a coffin-black sense of humour – at least for those with the stomach for its scenes of gory horror.
The film kicks off with the police having been on the trail of vicious multiple murderer Kyung Chul (Choi Min Sik) for many years without ever successfully managing to track him down. Shockingly, the evil man’s next victim turns out to be the pregnant fiancée of government agent Soo Hyun (Lee Byung Hun), and after killing her in particularly unpleasant fashion he finds himself being hunted by a man with nothing to lose, and who might just be even more ruthless and violent than he is.
There’s no getting around the fact that “I Saw the Devil” is a spectacularly gruesome piece of cinema, filled with mutilation, dismemberment, rape, torture, cannibalism and more, with the screen being quite literally painted red for a fair amount of its running time. Kim has always shown himself a director with a talent for tension and for edge of the seat style nerve tweaking, and here he really notches things up in a sustained, cruel manner, the film gripping from start to finish. Although the plot effectively leaps from set piece to set piece, each out-doing the last in terms of carnage and perversity, this works well and is in-keeping with the film as a sadistic game of cat and mouse, the relationship between Kyung Chul and Soo Hyun developing unpredictably as it accelerates towards hellish self destruction. It’s obvious from early on that pretty much the entire supporting cast are disposable, as the conflict between the two men relentlessly consumes everything and everyone that crosses their paths, good and evil alike.
At the same time, the film is by no means an empty exercise in shock, and Kim uses the ever shifting hunter prey dynamic as a disturbing glimpse into the worst recesses of the human psyche. Although the film is frequently excessive, its violence and sense of threat keeps it oddly believable and grounded, and it never quite tips over into extremist exploitation. As well as Kim’s assured direction and a tight, knowing script, this is to a large extent down to the superb, brave performances from the two leads, both of whom bring to convincing life what could easily have been one note characters. Although Lee Byung Hun perhaps has the less complex job of portraying Soo Hyun as a man gradually transforming into the monster he pursues, willingly sacrificing his soul in the name of revenge, he does this in mesmerising style, skilfully expressing a range of emotions often without words. Similarly, whilst Choi Min Sik’s killer is one of the most loathsome to pollute cinema screens for some time, he never degenerates into a pantomime villain, and indeed part of the film’s real horror comes from the fact that as suffers horribly at Soo Hyun’s hands, the viewer is often forced to see things from his twisted perspective.
Possibly the best thing about the film however is the fact that despite all the blood, guts and gazing into the Nietzschian abyss, Kim still manages to work in his trademark sense of ironic humour. Indeed, at least for those with a certain sensibility, the film is frequently hilarious, if for no other reason than it revolves around situations so perfectly grotesque that laughter is the only sensible reaction. Constructed with a near hysterical cruelty and featuring lashings of decidedly inappropriate slapstick, the film is the very definition of Grand Guignol exuberance, and like its protagonists walks a demented line between the civilised and the insanely macabre.
“I Saw the Devil” certainly isn’t a film for everyone, whether they be fans of Kim Jee Woon or the high profile stars or not, and viewers with a weak disposition should probably stay away. However, for those willing to submit to its wild, often quite abominable roller coaster ride of ghastly thrills, it stands as one of the most entertaining and well crafted films of 2010, confirming Kim not only as one of the best, but the bravest and most original directors working in Korean cinema today.
Jee-woon Kim (director) / Hoon-jung Park (screenplay)
CAST: Byung-hun Lee … Kim Soo-hyeon
Min-sik Choi … Kyung-chul
San-ha Oh … Joo-yeon
Yoon-seo Kim … Se-yeon