If South Korean vengeance movies are your thing, this extremely violent and misogynistic flick might just scare you away.
Dir. Kim Jee-woon
2010 | South Korea | Crime/Drama/Horror | 141 mins | 1.85:1 | Korean
R21 (passed clean) for strong violence and gore
Cast: Lee Byung-hun, Choi Min-sik, Kim In-seo
Plot: When his pregnant fiancee becomes the latest victim of a serial killer, a secret agent blurs the line between good and evil in his pursuit of revenge.
Awards: Official Selection (Toronto & Sundance)
International Sales: Finecut
Subject Matter: Disturbing/Perverse
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
(Reviewed in theatres – first published 18 Sept 2011)
Nothing will prepare you for what you are going to see in this new Korean horror-thriller by versatile director Kim Jee-hoon. Kim takes the vengeance drama and fashions it into one of the most violent and gory pictures in mainstream cinema in recent years. With a title like I Saw the Devil, you are certain to be in for something that will test your tolerance for extreme cinema.
Kim, who has made films such as the horror-mystery A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), the crime-drama A Bittersweet Life (2005), and most famously, The Good, the Bad, and the Weird (2008), a kimchi Western inspired by Sergio Leone’s original 1966 film, delivers his most shocking film yet.
I Saw the Devil stars Choi Min-sik (Oldboy, 2003) as Kyung-chul, the film’s brutal and sadistic villain who rapes and tortures young, beautiful and vulnerable women, before eventually killing them. He even has a secret dungeon where he slowly dismembers his still-conscious victim with an array of torture devices and a combination of sharp and blunt tools.
When he is not torturing anyone, he ferries student girls around in a yellow school van. As you can see, this guy is completely messed up. The plot kick-starts with the discovery of a severed human ear, reminding me of David Lynch’s surrealistic mystery-drama Blue Velvet (1986).
But unlike Lynch’s masterpiece, I Saw the Devil deals extensively with the notion of vengeance. This is brought to the fray by Kyung-chul’s opponent, Soo-hyeon (played by Lee Byung-hun), the film’s determined protagonist, or so we thought. You see, Soo-hyeon’s wife is one of the victims of Kyung-chul and he vows to pursue revenge in the name of justice.
Controversially, Soo-hyeon’s brand of revenge is to exact the same suffering upon his wife’s killer. This is where Kim’s film gets morally provocative because the protagonist is also sadistic. By being unconventional in its narrative approach, I Saw the Devil asks of the question: What is revenge when one fools around with it with dire consequences?
“When you’re in the most pain, shivering out of fear, then I will kill you. That’s a real revenge. A real complete revenge.”
It would be tempting to reduce the entire film to a series of chase sequences involving Soo-hyeon capturing Kyung-chul and torturing him, and then letting him go, before capturing him to torture him again. This playful predator-prey approach may be entertaining, but stretching it to about 2.5 hours means scenarios do get repetitive.
What is more noticeable though is the film’s palpable sense of trepidation. From the prologue sequence, the mood is set for a very suspenseful ride into hell. Kim’s use of the camera creates tension, and so is his use of creaking doors. His camera doesn’t shy away from all the extreme violence, and it’s not the campy Sam Raimi kind.
Speaking of which, there is one outstanding violent sequence shot within the confines of a moving taxi via a rotating camera (a technique that could have been inspired from Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men (2006)) in which two occupants slash and stab each other (and the driver) repeatedly with fountains of blood spurting in all directions. It is a sequence that would not look out of place in a Tarantino movie.
One must credit Choi for his performance as the insane psychopath. He is so scary-looking that Hannibal Lecter would be forgiven if he peed in his pants. It is the quality of the acting by Choi and to some extent, Lee, that makes I Saw the Devil miles better than any Hollywood torture porn movie.
Kim’s film, while not recommended for audiences who easily get sickened by the sight of torture on screen, is still a competently-made feature, though it is far from the high standards set by Oldboy, still the holy grail of its sub-genre. In Park Chan-wook’s film, violence and torture have a justifiable purpose.
However in I Saw the Devil, these portrayals may have gone overboard in its explicitness. But at least you can draw comfort from the fact that the film is stimulating in some odd way or another. You can’t really say that for the Hostel or Saw movies, can you?