Choi Min-sik and victim in I Saw the Devil

Kim Jee-woon’s eastern-western  The Good, The Bad, The Weird was one of the most purely entertaining movies of 2010, a breezily stylish spaghetti western and Quentin Tarantino-flavored action romp through the desert border between China and Korea in the early 1900s. In his latest, Kim teams up with GBW’s Lee Byung-hun (“The Bad”) and Oldboy’s Choi Min-sik for a serial killer/revenge thriller hybrid that turns down the flamboyance a notch, keeps the pure genre entertainment value and also delivers a surprising thoughtfulness and philosophical depth that had not previously been a part of Kim’s filmmaking equation. While I Saw the Devil does not necessarily chart new genre territory, it blazes a thrilling and memorable (if often unpleasant) path across familiar terrain.

Tinkering with the simple idea that we risk becoming the monsters we fight, Kim pits elite police agent Dae-hoon against vicious serial killer Kyung-chul who early in the film kidnaps, tortures and brutally murders the agent’s beautiful wife. For Dae-hoon, notions of justice, law and order are quickly replaced by a searing lust for bloody eye-for-an-eye retribution. Simply catching the killer isn’t enough. Instead he embarks on a twisted cat and mouse game designed to bring the level of physical and psychological suffering to Kyung-chul that he imagines was visited upon his wife.

Over the course of his 2 hour and 21 minute film, Kim is keen to torture his audience a little bit as well with the sheer brutality and relentlessness of the violence on screen. As a character, the serial killer becomes more vile and wretched as the story progresses. Kim does everything he can to make you hate the killer and to root for revenge, but then he challenges you and the pleasure you crave by making that revenge as punishing and unpleasant to watch as possible. How do you torture a monster that does not fear pain and is incapable of remorse? This is not the case of a bloodless shooting and the hero walking off into the sunset confident with the sense of a job well done. Nothing is that easy in I Saw the Devil. There are terrible consequences all around and, in the end, the gut punch of a realization that the whole charade is unlikely to fill the ragged hole left by the loss of Dae-hoon’s love. Does he really find retribution or has the killer simply claimed another victim?

Lee Byung-hun is icy-cool as Dae-hoon, a revenge-bent shark and the perfect cinematic counterpoint for Choi Min-sik’s flamboyantly debased yet in ways more human psychopath Kyung-chul. Together the two essentially carry a long, grimy and often unpleasant film through the sheer force of personality.

If you’re turned off by violence, this obviously is not the film for you, but if you don’t mind being pushed to the brink of wanting to turn away from the horror while also having your nose rubbed a little bit in your own thirst for revenge, you’ll definitely want to give I Saw the Devil a try. It deftly delivers on its gritty genre promise while also opening the door to some unsettling philosophical questions about the need for payback.

I Saw the Devil (South Korea 2010) (US release 2011) Directed by Kim Jee-woon. Screenplay by Park Hoon Jung. Cinematography by Lee Mogae. Music score by Mowg. Edited by Nam Na-young. Starring  Lee Byung-hun, Choi Min-sik, Chun Kook-haun, Chun Ho-jin, Oh San-ha, Kim Yoon-seo, Choi Moo-seong and Kim In-seo. 2 hours 21 minutes. Not rated by the MPAA. 4 stars (out of 5)

2 Responses to “I Saw the Devil (2011)”

  1. I’m anxious to see this one. Great review. Sounds like I also need to see The Good, the Bad, and the Weird.

  2. GBW was definitely lighter, but I had a lot of fun with it. It tried a little too hard to be Tarantinoesque, but it was so unassuming and unpretentious about it I didn’t mind.

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