I Saw the Devil
Lee Byung-hun, Choi Min-sik,Oh San-Ha, Jeon Kuk-Hwan, Cheon Ho-Jin
US theatrical: 4 Mar 2011 (General release)
UK theatrical: 4 Mar 2011 (General release)
It’s a pain inside that burns like the hottest of fires. It’s a feeling so strong it overwhelms, only intensifying with time. With each passing moment, with each passing instant, the desire grows deeper, darker, more disturbed. It’s fuel. It’s fear. It’s frightening. In the end, the urge is no longer just sinister, it’s unstoppable. For the antagonist and protagonist in Kim Ji-woon excellent I Saw the Devil, the competing passions are equally perverse. Kyung-chul is a predatory psychopath, preying on the young and vulnerable around his Korean prefecture. Soo-Hyun is the fiancé of one of his victims, a special units agent driven to a deadly game of cat and mouse payback. Together, they forge a path which rewrites the standard serial killer crime thriller as we know it.
Indeed, when Kyung-chul makes the mistake of picking on the poor daughter of a retired police chief, he peaks the interest of two separate factions: the official law and order of his native land, and the angered boyfriend who won’t stop until the murderer has suffered 10000 times the pain his victims have. Using his sources in the government, Soo-Hyun manages to find and track Kyung-chul, disrupting several of his crimes with savage beatings and unbridled torture. Then, as part of his plan, he lets his ‘victim’ go, allowing him to feel just fre enough before springing on him again. Eventually, the real detectives want Soo-Hyun to stop, and set up a way to get him away from Kyung-chul. Of course, with any man driven by insane rage, no one can truly stop his need for vengeance.
For a genre that has felt as redundant as imitations of Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, I Saw the Devil is a revelation. It takes the entire police procedural prototype into new and quite daring territory. Kim, who continues to explore all avenues of expression, leaves the J-horror (The Tale of Two Sisters) and action spaghetti westerns (The Good, The Bad, The Weird) behind to create a complicated, compelling look at how two men mismanage their unholy animalistic urges. On the one hand there is Kyung-chul (Oldboy‘s Choi Min-sik), a true case study in diseased diabolic obsession. We know he’s killed many, especially when his lair is discovered…along with a locked filing cabinet filled with ‘souvenirs’. He is meticulous and practiced, never fully preparing for his next crime, but always ready to deal with the consequences in grim, gory exactitude.
Then there is Soo-Hyun (Lee Byung-hun, recently as Storm Shadow in the GI Joe movie), a seemingly normal man driven to the edges of rationality by the death of his bride-to-be. Not only is justice part of his job, it’s a promise he made to his devastated in-laws. Now, he is on a path toward his own self-destruction, a road rife with confrontations and cruel punishments, brutality and the belief that said sadism serves a higher purpose. We never once get the impression that Soo-Hyun is truly ‘enjoying’ his journey into the bloody dark side. Instead, he approaches his descent like his regular job - with a professionalism borne out of practice and a skill saved up over many maddening years. Like a seasoned chess player, he is always one step ahead of Kyung-chul, even when it looks like he will let pride and hubris get the best of him.
Kim then sprinkles this surprisingly effective thriller with all manner of meaningful quirk. There are references to other films (Blue Velvet, The Silence of the Lambs, Hostel) while never turning everything completely over into homage. The visuals are graphic, but also given the necessary realism to make us care about what happens next. Kim does go to extremes in several situations, making it clear that both Soo-Hyun and Kyung-chul are capable of great evil. He then adds in ancillary characters (a fellow mass murderer with a penchant for human flesh, a tightly wound police official) to occasionally drag us out of this otherwise intense two person playground.
Indeed, the best thing about I Saw the Devil is that it takes its time (over two and half hours) getting into the psychology of its main parts. Instead of yin and yang, pro and con, Kyung-chul and Soo-Hyun are like differently decorated pastries cut from the same freakish mold. Instead of playing on morality or social norms, both function fully on instinct, using whatever tool at their disposal to render their deranged, often deadly aims. If one has to find a dividing line, it’s in Kyung-chul’s additional need for sickening sexual release. The reason we accept Soo-Hyun’s vigilantism is that he’s not constantly trying to rape his victims before the bludgeoning begins. Both men are bad, one is just a whole lot worse in his carnal connections.
As usual, Kim uses a Fincher like flamboyance on this material, making it into his own Zodiac like statement. Shots are stunning in their composition and complexity, and he manages magnificent, subtle performances out of actors who are essentially playing caged beasts. This is especially true of Choi Min-sik, who has the difficult job of essaying the recognizable villain type without constantly sliding into vaudeville. He does have a few moments of dark comical glee, but for the most part, this is a man who silently relishes his actions and bathes in the miscreant motives that drive them. Lee Byung-hun is an excellent counterpoint to such sleaze. He is perhaps even more frightening in that, with his groomed mannerism and official status, he’s the psycho you don’t expect.
In combination, all three create a memorable murder scenario, a film that is instantly addictive and ready for repeat viewings. Yes, there is strong stuff here, but not as nasty as some of the atrocities Eli Roth and his torture porn buddies dream up. The reason something like I Saw the Devil makes us wince is that we’ve come to get involved in the case, to actually care about the outcome and Soo-Hyun’s warped idea of grieving. As usual, Kim builds a beautiful mood of suspense, keeping us on the edge of our seat while simultaneously glued to same, and when the tension and narrative builds, so do the various levels of dread. In an era where the serial killer film feels pointless and unnecessarily prolonged, I Saw the Devil is reinvigorating. Not only is it cruel and creative - it’s damn near a classic.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.