Korean director Kim Ji-Woon has always been a film festival favorite and he has been one of Korea’s directors I follow religiously as with Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy), Kim Ki-Duk (The Isle), Hong Sang-Soo (Woman On The Beach), Lee Chang-Dong (Secret Sunshine) and Ryu Seung-Wan (Arahan). Kim has always been the kind of filmmaker that always stuck to his own style but never has he sacrificed content for style. His “A Tale of Two Sisters” is still arguably the best horror film in the Korean new wave, “A Bittersweet Life” is a fantastic study of the Korean gangster, and “The Good The Bad The Weird” was a genre-busting extravaganza that combined the sensibilities of a Sergio Leone Western with the fun factor of an adventure film. Kim may be bombastic sometimes and maybe even extravagant, but no one can deny that he is one of Korea’s most successful directors and definitely one, if not the most versatile.
It is with this mindset that I went to buy the film “I Saw The Devil” and it promises to be one of the most violent films in Korean history. Kim goes into its premise with a very focused approach and those who wonder what would happen if Jason Bourne went after Hannibal Lecter may find an answer in this film with a small touch of “Oldboy“ and some “No Country For Old Men“ for good measure. This is the third collaboration between Kim and actor Lee Byung-Hun. (who also played Snake Eyes in G.I. Joe)
The film takes off immediately and Kim doesn’t hide the identity of the killer in the film’s first 8-10 minutes. A young woman named Joo-Yeon (played by Oh San-Ha) is kidnapped in a snowy highway when her car gets stuck in the snow. Brutally beaten and murdered by a man named Jang Kyung-Chul (Choi Min-Sik, Oldboy), this woman was also apparently engaged to a man named Kim Soo-Hyun (Lee Byung-Hun, A Bittersweet Life), a special agent with very special skills in hunting down and killing bad guys. Now, he is righteously pissed. He goes through the lists of suspects with ease (making them confess to their past crimes) until finally he finds proof that Jang is the cause of his grief. But just when he stops Jang from raping another female victim by beating him senseless, he decides to let him go. Jang is left to try and prey on another victim; he is even left with a handful of cash. What is going on? The two are about to play a cat and mouse game with the shadow of vengeance over them…
Korean films have always had a very human theme whenever they go about a premise. “I Saw The Devil” tackles the premise of revenge much like Park Chan Wook did with his “Vengeance Trilogy” but Kim goes for a different approach. He goes straight for the jugular with brutal violence, action, psychological mind games and horror elements. Kim Ji-Woon presents his own study of the concept of revenge. Sure it may arguably not be as thought-provoking or psychologically disturbing as Park’s creation, but I would argue that this film may leave you more breathless and more on the edge of your seat. Revenge is a dish best served cold, but with “I Saw The Devil”, revenge is indeed meaner, nastier and more brutal. Revenge is served bloody and cruel.
Revenge scorches the soul; its roots may be traced to grief, a promise of redemption or atonement and maybe even to lighten a personal burden. Things may seem to get better but it would only get worst. For some reason, Jang and Kim begin to form a strange bond, they seem to see their similarities and yet, they both see how different they are. These are ruthless men, born to do what they think is their destiny and the film brings forth a strong morality theme as in the line between psychosis and grief, in becoming a monster and just what is a monster. One is fueled by pure psychosis and one may be tempered by reason and training; they make use of who or what they are. Jang may even know he is truly a sick human being and during the scene with the cannibal, the viewer would be privy to the fact that he is well-respected among his fellow psychotics (Kim Ji-Woon demonstrates Jang’s killing rampage and depraved nature in a taxi cab). Kim Soo-Hyun is a man trained to hunt, kill and maybe protect. These are two men with a strong resolve to do what they have to or what they want to. It leaves a psychopath’s nihilistic and cruel desires within reach and yet miles away. There is a very dark sense of humor exhibited by Kim Ji-Woon and sometimes, he gives us a few uneasy and uncomfortable giggle. I wanted to laugh as Soo-Hyun appears to be an awesome ass-kicker and a cock-blocker, Lee was like a raging hurricane but in a way I was more disturbed with what I was watching.
The direction keeps the film at a very thrilling and absolutely breathless pace that kept me on the edge of my feet despite its 140+ minute runtime. The director knew how to generate suspense and I was kept breathless as the two play their dark game. Kim also never relents from violent imagery; the film is filled with violence and there is quite a number of gory and bloody scenes. The also has strong depictions of violence against women with several scenes of nudity, although most were controlled and maintained a sense of restraint. The film is filled with graphic imagery, tendons are slashed, mouths torn, throats are slit, genitals are bludgeoned, heads are bashed in and those who have a weak stomach may find them hard to take. The film has its share of great visuals; as Kim and company use old-school prosthetics and blood-splatter effects to express the brutality, and they are done in a manner that only Kim Ji-Woon could. The direction does shoot the scenes with class and taste, as it never seemed to glorify the violence but makes it necessary only to get its points across.
The film also has several twists and surprises as he manages to keep everything coherent and solid. Director Kim Ji-Woon develops the plot and supporting characters through the film’s themes and violent imagery and I cannot discuss this further since it is part of the film's main draw. All I can reveal is that the characters have a purpose and they are in script for a purpose. Kim almost crosses the line of becoming ‘torture porn’ feature but I have to applaud his touch at being more compassionate and less cynical with the delivery of the sadistic scenes. “I Saw The Devil” may have a premise that may seem familiar, but we’ve never seen a revenge premise told like this. Kim does what he does best, and he sticks to it, and what results is an exceptional, well-acted and brilliant action-horror-thriller that has the same fantastic moody cinematography, careful editing and stylish visuals that complement one another.
Dark, cruel, lurid, unrelenting, violent and brutal, “I Saw The Devil” is an excellent film that gets the fact that violence is a product of our actions and is something very nasty. Magnificently expressed by two very alike yet so different characters, it comes forth with the consequences and evils of vengeance; that sometimes it hits you back like a ton of bricks. So who do you think wins in this “Jason Bourne collides with Hannibal Lecter-send a monster to catch a monster” kind of deal? Watch this film and you can decide who loses. Just what is a monster?
After Vengeance, What Do You Have Left?
Highly Recommended! [5- Out of 5 Stars] This Film is Easily Making My Best of 2011 List!
It can be difficult to find a way in to the cinema of another culture, and, even despite its impressive catalog of really excellent films, the Korean New Wave is no exception. Park Chan Wook's movies ("Oldboy" and "Thirst", among others) are one way in, but they are often so stylized, and the style so different from what plays at the multiplex, as to be offputting. The bestselling movie in Korea, Bong Joon-Ho's "The Host," is a monster-comedy; … more
18 - 141mins - Crime/Drama/Horror - 29th April 2011 A foreign movie from the country of South Korea, I Saw The Devil keeps in tune with many of the films to successfully make it out of Korea with it's dark and gory plot based around revenge. It follows Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee) who is a highly trained agent. One night while stranded on the side of the road after her car breaks down, Kim's pregnant fiancée is attacked and brutally murdered by Kyung-chul (Min-sik … more
Kim Ji-Woon does it again! A truly unrelenting violent film that has all the emotional and dramatic impact to portray a very human reaction....the need for vengeance. Amazingly well-acted and definitely well-executed; Kim is joined by Choi Min-Sik and Lee Byung-Hun to bring forth a dark like coal tale of rage, anger and psychosis wrapped around an action- horror-thriller that may be one of the best Korean films of 2011! See the full review here. … more
A shockingly violent and stunning tale of murder and revenge. The embodiment of pure evil, Kyung-chul is a psychopath who kills for pleasure. His latest victim was not only the daughter of a retired police chief, but also the pregnant fianc?e of elite special agent Soo-hyun. Obsessed with revenge, Soo-hyun is determined to track down the murderer, even if doing so means becoming a monster himself. Turning Kyung-chul in to the authorities is the last thing on Soo-hyun's mind, as the lines between good and evil fall away in this diabolically twisted game of cat and mouse.