In the admittedly over-saturated world of gritty revenge cinema, acclaimed director Ji-woon Kim’s brutal 2010 thriller “I Saw the Devil” exists in its own stylishly unique universe. Not only does the film have the distinction of being one of the most uncomfortably violent endeavors to come out of South Korean in a very long time, it’s also perhaps one of the most genuinely intense experiences I’ve had the pleasure of encountering all year. It reminds me of the sort of thrillers Hollywood used to make back in the 90’s after David Fincher’s “Seven” completely redefined the genre. And before you protest too loudly, that isn’t a slight against this wickedly enjoyable film whatsoever. In fact, it’s probably one of the biggest compliments I could bestow upon the production.
For those of you who haven’t followed the film as closely as I have over the past several months, “I Saw the Devil” stars charismatic actor Lee Byeong-Heon (“A Bittersweet Life”) as Kim Soo-hyeon, a young, up-and-coming police officer who is struggling to cope with the tragic lose of his beloved fiance, who recently lost her life at the hands of a sadistic madman. Instead of using his two weeks of paid leave to grieve, Kim sets out on a mission to locate the psychopath responsible for this heinous crime and exact a little vengeance in the name of love. He immediately sets to work, using a plethora of extremely sinister methods to extract information from the individuals he feels are the strongest suspects. If you’ve ever wondered how a man would react to having his genitals beaten with a hammer, prepare to have your wildest cinematic dreams come true. But, I digress.
Kim’s unofficial investigation soon leads him into the general vicinity of impossibly deranged serial killer Jang Gyeong-cheol (“Oldboy” star Choi Min-sik), a man who derives great pleasure from raping and murdering young women. Kim, of course, makes extremely quick work of the lunatic, though he’s not content to settle for ordinary everyday retribution. Instead of merely crushing his skull and moving on, Kim devotes his days and nights to torturing, maiming, and thoroughly demolishing his opponent. And once he’s finished beating the villain into a bloody pulp, he patches him up and sets him free, only to track him down and start the process all over again within a few hours. However, in this particular case, the hunter has seriously underestimated his prey, and this deadly game of cat and mouse is about to take a decidedly unexpected turn for the worse.
“I Saw the Devil” is a near-perfect cinematic experience, a two-and-a-half hour excursion into the darkest parts of the human condition. Although Kim’s quest for revenge is powered by good intentions, it doesn’t take long for him to fully embrace the power and the pleasure that comes with dominating and overpowering another person. Their numerous physical encounters, while thoroughly enjoyable on a purely visceral level, ultimately leave the audience feeling drained, weary, as Kim’s descent into unbridled madness begins to harm those around him. Director Ji-woon Kim handles this tricky dilemma with poise, style, and, yes, restraint; instead of giving the audience a handful of easy answers, he makes you question our hero’s dedication to his blood-thirsty quest, even when you can’t wait for Jang to finally get precisely what he deserves.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the entire picture is the level of sheer brutality on-display at any given moment. Watching Jang Gyeong-cheol butcher his victims is certainly unnerving, as is Kim Soo-hyeon’s sadistic approach to criminal rehabilitation. The film is loaded from top to bottom with signature moments, including a particularly inspired fight inside a cluttered green house and an unexpectedly savage cab ride that spills more blood than I’ve seen in this sort of movie in a very long time. Ji-woon Kim never glorifies these frequently jarring bursts of gore-encrusted violence, which might have happened had the project landed in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. It’s an astonishing, deftly-executed balancing act, and is crucial in binding the story’s dark and dreary themes together in the end. As nasty as it may be, you’ll find it hard to look away.
Fueled by fantastic performances, several intriguing set pieces, and some darkly beautiful cinematography, “I Saw the Devil” manages to thrill even those who may have grown tired of the countless suspense yarns that come rampaging out of South Korean on a fairly regular basis. In my humble opinion, the film sets a bold new standard for the genre, returning to the days when thrillers were more concerned with story, characters, and atmosphere than third act twists and last minute revelations. Although it may appear to be a simple revenge story on the surface, “I Saw the Devil” is something far more engrossing and complex than anything I’ve seen from this sort of feature in a very long time. It’s a dank, dark, and impossibly dreary masterpiece, an unrelenting tale of morality gone horribly awry. In short, a future classic. Mark my words.
Kim Ji-woon (director) / Park Hoon-jeong-I (screenplay)
CAST: Lee Byeong-Heon … Kim Soo-hyeon
Choi Min-sik … Jang Keyong-cheol
Jeon Gook-hwan … Squad chief Jang
Cheon Ho-jin … Section chief Oh
Oh San-ha .. Joo-yeon
Kim Yoon-seo … Se-yeon ‘