PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


The Best Revenge: 'I Saw the Devil'

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.

I Saw the Devil

Director: Kim Ji-woon
Cast: Lee Byung-hun, Choi Min-sik,Oh San-Ha, Jeon Kuk-Hwan, Cheon Ho-Jin
Rated: R
Studio: Showbox/Mediaplex
Year: 2010
US date: 2011-03-04 (General release)
UK date: 2011-03-04 (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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.