“I Saw the Devil” provides almost everything to shock you and repel you – and I admired it at some degree. The movie acquired its notoriety even before its release in South Korea due to the conflict with Korean Media Rating Board(About 1.5 minutes was cut from the original version in the end). It has been striking our Korean audience with a little mercy since this Thursday while inducing discussions among them about the violence in the movies. I guarantee you, the movie will be the most controversial South Korean movie of this year.
It deserves that place. Some dismissed it as “snuff film”, but the movie is not a tasteless exercise on the violence and the gore. It definitely belongs to the exploitation genre, but the movie deals with its inflammatory materials quite well while pushing us into lots of, lots of unpleasant situations with its appropriate style. In addition, the movie has some wry, morbid sense of humor amidst of blood, sweat, tear, and, (hold your breath), the excrement. There is the sequence where the character tries to find some object in the toilet stool after taking the laxative, and we get quite a graphic depiction of it. Ewwwww, I don’t like when that happens.
The story is about a vengeful cat-and-mouse game between two violent characters that goes beyond the simple duel between the good and the evil. The evil one is a ruthless psychotic serial killer(Choi Min-Sik) who is far more diabolical than what he seems to be. You don’t want to come across that kind of seedy guy on the street, while never imagining what he is truly capable of. Whenever he, named Kyeong-Cheol, spots his random prey(always a young woman) in a right situation, he does not hesitate to revel in his murderous instinct. He attacks her, takes her to his lair, kills her, and hacks off her body. The movie does not retreating from his brutality. Although it’s still bloody and grisly to look at, the killing and its outcome are not shown too graphically while effectively making us scared and horrified.
His latest victim is Ju-yeon(Oh San-ha), the fiancee of Soo-hyeon(Lee Byung-hun). Some time after she was taken away by the killer, her remains are found by the police and Soo-hyeon becomes devastated. Full of guilt and anger, he decides to deal with the killer for himself. The police has the list of the suspects, which somehow includes Kyeong-Cheol(it is not explained well in the movie). With the consent and that information from Ju-yeon’s ex-cop father(Jeon Kook-hwan from “Secret Reunion”), Soo-hyeon sets upon pursuing the serial killer with his resources.
Soo-hyeon is not an average man. As seen in the opening sequence, he works in the National Intelligence Agency, and he has the skills and the devices. If he wants, he can sneak into somebody’s house and extract the information he wants from him by any means necessary. He comes to focuse on Kyeong-Cheol after checking other suspects, and eventually succeeds in catching him right on the spot after confirming Kyeong-Cheol is responsible for his fiancee’s death.
After that, the movie walks into more disturbing area where the morality of the character is questioned. Soo-hyeon has the cold, merciless plan and he wants the killer’s life a living hell for his vengeance as long as possible. He sets Kyeong-Cheol loose, and then he monitors the killer without his knowledge. Whenever Kyeong-Cheol’s evil nature goes rampant, Soo-hyeon appears and pours another harsh punishment upon the killer without any pity. The cycle goes on, and now the predator becomes the prey.
This repeated ritual of vengeance with escalating intensity on the screen is not comfortable to watch at all. It’s sometimes quite hard to identify with Soo-hyeon. Of course, he has a cause, but does it justify his behavior? Does it make any difference to him or others in the end? Furthermore, he even indirectly harms innocent bystanders in pursuit of vengeance. In one scene, he eavesdrops on Kyeong-Cheol violating the nurse at the hospital. Rather than blocking his action, he chooses to wait more just because he wants to punish Kyeong-Cheol harder by interrupting his pleasure. While preying on and punishing the savage monster, he becomes slowly bogged down in the moral quagmire. Remember that famous quote from Nietzsche about confronting with the monster and the abyss?
Although it makes some points about the violence and the vengeance, “I Saw the Devil” has several weak spots that bothered me. The story resides in the familiar ground while going in a predictable direction, the characterization is weak, the plot has several holes(especially in the second part), and, above all, it does not stir my emotion as powerfully as Park Chan-wook’s infamous revenge movies. The finale is weak as a payoff and the story does not satisfyingly resolve Soo-hyeon’s problem
The director Kim Ji-woon makes his movie compelling enough to watch for more than 2 hours. I wondered if he had a try at this for some fun. Like his previous works(“A Tale of Two Sisters”, “The Good The Bad The Weird”), he dabbles with the genre while ensuring his work to be technically polished in many aspects. Sometimes the movie becomes unexpectedly humorous with the plight of the killer, and it even delves into the territory not far from a twisted humor of “The Devil’s Rejects” when Kyeong-Cheol visits some luxurious mansion in the forest with the diabolical savagery hidden inside. There is the moment when some character has to take care of the problem with the screwdriver impaled his hand on the table, and it is both funny and cringe-inducing.
The movie is propelled by two lead performances. I don’t think the casting of Lee Byung-hun is successful, but he has enough presence to sustain our interest. Although we cannot help but think of his great performance in “Oldboy” while watching him, Choi Min-Sik captivates our attention again with a terrifying performance. Kyeong-Cheol is the evil force of nature; the tension of the story mainly depends on the possibility of him getting unleashed. Soo-Hyeon foolishly thinks he can torment this monster and he regrets about his error later. Supporting actors are functional at best, but I’d like to mention the actor Choi Moo-Seong, whose character is somehow horrifyingly entertaining.
After the achievements with uncompromising, skillful handling of the violence such as “Oldboy” and “The Chaser”, I have been very disappointed about how some recent Korean movies deal poorly with the violence as well as the story. As a matter of fact, there are some deplorable movies like “No Mercy” and “Outlaw” this year. Thankfully, “I Saw the Devil” handles its material very well and I’d really like to praise the movie for many good reasons. However, it remains as an exercise, and it goes too far from time to time. I like its humor, but the movie could have done better in this bloody carnage. This dark movie gave me an overwhelming and unforgettable experience, but will I go back to it again? And can I recommend it to you? I’m still debating with myself about it. And I think I warn you enough about what you will get.