Kim Ji-woon is arguably one of the greatest talents to emerge from the Korean film industry over recent years. Through movies like A Tale of Two Sisters and A Bittersweet Life, Kim has displayed tremendous versatility; crafting films of various genres, and twisting each genre formula to make it feel fresh and renewed. 2010’s I Saw the Devil represents Kim’s unique spin on serial killer flicks and revenge epics, resulting in a riveting ultra-violent thriller that mixes Silence of the Lambs and Oldboy, with maybe a hint of No Country for Old Men thrown in for good measure. Unflinchingly graphic, Kim’s latest magnum opus aims to shock, disgust, infuriate, and even challenge viewers in a thoughtful fashion. A dumbed-down Death Wish remake this is not – I Saw the Devil is a meditation on the cost of revenge, and its themes are conveyed without sacrificing the viscera that viewers are likely seeking.
In Korea, merciless serial killer Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi) begins murdering vulnerable young girls, taking great delight in graphically murdering and dismembering his victims. His latest target, a young woman (San-ha Oh), is the fiancé of secret agent Soo-hyun (Byung-hun Lee) and the daughter of a police section chief. Emotionally devastated, Soo-hyun vows to exact revenge on the killer in the most brutal way he can. Working off a list of suspects provided by his would-be father-in-law, Soo-hyun soon encounters Kyung-chul and starts to implement his simple revenge plan: inflict as much pain as humanly possible without killing his victim. As Soo-hyun elongates the vengeful suffering and toys with Kyung-chul over days and weeks, his moral code begins to evaporate.
While we’ve seen violent revenge films before, we have never seen one quite like this. It’s director Kim’s treatment of the material that makes I Saw the Devil so special – as an orchestrator of white-knuckle suspense set-pieces and as a visual filmmaker, he’s difficult to top. Kim excels when it comes to moody cinematography, nail-biting tension and graphic violence. Seriously, this is one of the most brutal, wince-inducingly violent movies ever made. However, the term “torture porn” does not exactly apply to I Saw the Devil, as the film is concerned about more than mere exploitation – the graphic bloodletting seems to be in the service of the plot, not the other way around. Kim is a more accomplished filmmaker than someone like Eli Roth, and his stylish directorial hand ensures that the violence is riveting and intense rather than just plain unpleasant. Plus, all of the repulsiveness exists within the context of thematic complexity. If the violence was toned down, the film’s messages and thematic density would also be weakened. Kudos to Kim and his crew for sticking to their guns and retaining artistic integrity in order to deliver such an uncompromising piece of work.
Hoon-jung Park’s screenplay also deserves credit for shrewdly playing around with typical serial killer genre clichés. I Saw the Devil could’ve been a predictable, run-of-the-mill revenge actioner, but the film is instead more thoughtful and twist-laden. Running at a mammoth length of about 140 minutes, the film admittedly feels a bit like a workprint version awaiting additional trimming, but sluggish patches are very scarce – for the most part, I Saw the Devil moves with breathtaking efficiency. Director Kim’s dexterity when it comes pacing, atmosphere and suspense has a lot to do with this. Not to mention, Kyung-chul is established as such a monster that you’ll want to keep watching in order to see the guy get his comeuppance in the most satisfyingly brutal way imaginable. Through this, it’s hard to tear your eyes away from the screen.
To many, Min-sik Choi will be recognisable as the grizzled star of 2003’s Oldboy. His role here of a brutal, dangerous serial killer suits the actor’s abilities tremendously well. Choi’s performance is memorably intense and chilling; he’s a standout. Meanwhile, Byung-hun Lee (star of Kim’s previous films The Good, the Bad, the Weird and A Bittersweet Life) is a dashing, amiable protagonist (though “anti-hero” is perhaps a more appropriate term). The two are a terrific pairing, as the story pits Chois brute strength against Lee’s sleek martial arts skills. The fights stemming from this contrast are exhilarating.
With a handful of excellent films already under his belt, it seems there’s nothing director Kim Ji-woon cannot turn into excellence. It’s also hard not to get excited about the prospect of Kim’s future motion pictures. If you have the stomach for this type of graphic violence, I Saw the Devil is a treat.