Best South Korean Films: Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil
Korea has produced some of the greatest entries in the serial killer sub-genre over the past twenty years, with Memories of Murder and The Chaser being the two prime examples. Kim Ji-woon’s epic I Saw the Devil, starring award-winning actors Lee Byung-hun (The Good, The Bad, The Weird) and Choi Min-sik (Oldboy) in the lead roles, clearly sets a new benchmark with its exceptionally graphic violence. The film even had to undergo extensive re-editing before its premiere in order to get a theatrical release in Korea. The result is still a shockingly violent, disturbing, dark, brutal and painful film, that pushes the concept of revenge to some extreme limits.
Korean genre master Kim Jee-woon (A Tale of Two Sisters) has once again proven the versatility of his talent, effortlessly switching genres to craft a uniquely terrifying experience. Part police procedural and part serial killer, Kim finds surprising and exciting new ways to tell his story. As a crafty thriller and as a brutal horror film, I Saw the Devil is now a staple of late-night festival strands, but as an epic battle between good and evil, I Saw the Devil is unfortunately mostly style over substance.
Choi Min-sik plays Kyung-chul, a psychopath who kills simply for pleasure. The embodiment of pure evil, he has committed countless murders on helpless victims while successfully eluding capture by the police. His latest victim is the beautiful daughter of a retired police chief and the pregnant fiancée of a special agent named Soo-hyun. Obsessed with revenge, Soo-hyun decides to track down the man who murdered his wife-to-be and enact his own form of revenge—by teasing and torturing the killer as much as humanly possible.
I Saw the Devil certainly has an interesting premise. In attempting to sidestep the conventional revenge thriller, Kim delivers a story of a once-good man taking his revenge while examining the effect it has on him. But the difference here is that our protagonist allows the serial killer to escape so he can find him again and repeat the punishment. The second aspect that makes I Saw the Devil unique, is how it shows the perspective of the serial killer as both predator and prey. The hunter becomes the hunted, reverts to the hunter, and back again. It’s an increasingly bizarre and twisted game of cat-and-mouse that spins out of control, resulting in a series of blood-thirsty showdowns.
Our hero becomes instantly infected by the malicious evil he’s trying to destroy, bringing new meaning to Nietzsche’s assertion that “when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” As the film proceeds, its fundamental concerns about the nature of revenge becomes undermined by the nihilistic vigor of the excessive carnage, and thus the problem with setting the violence levels so high and refusing to let them drop means that any emotions other than anger and revenge are quickly abandoned. So as much as we try to sympathize with Dae-Hoon, and as much as we enjoy watching Kyung-Chul’s suffering, the characters are defined simply by their actions, preventing us from feeling terribly invested. Exploring the main characters’ psychological motivations to violence in any meaningful way is brushed aside in order to make way for the next depraved set-piece.
Still, while the overall examination of the dangers and effects of revenge seem a bit vacuous (or at least lightweight), fans of ultra-violent thrillers will most likely be pleased. As expected, I Saw The Devil shows all the hallmarks of the South Korean filmmaker: gorgeous camera work, whip-smart editorial control, several intriguing set pieces, beautiful cinematography, a brooding atmosphere, a nerve-wracking score, some surprisingly interesting narrative twists, and stunning lead performances. The direction, writing, production, editing, music, and acting are all top-notch. I Saw the Devil also features what is possibly the best scene from any film released in 2009, which involves a cab driver and two homicidal maniacs. The choreography in this one scene alone is well worth the price of admission— ingenious both in the camera work and in the execution of the actors spiraling out of control.
In between moments of chisel-hacking horror, there is also some impressively dark humour and top-notch acting. But be warned: even by Asian extreme standards, Kim Ji-woon’s I Saw the Devil is exceptionally graphic. Rape, decapitation/dismemberment, and cannibalism are all shown with glee, and blood and gore populate the frames. Emotionally, this movie will reach deep into the pit of your stomach and stab your guts repeatedly before tearing them out.
At 144 minutes, I Saw The Devil could stand to trim ten to fifteen minutes to improve the pacing, but it is still quite an achievement -a movie full of visceral shocks and aesthetic pleasures: it has an explosive immediacy and will surely stand the test of time. It is something you will never forget.