Review originally posted on criterioncast.com on March 19th, 2011
Revenge films have been done plenty of times. Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy and Tarantino’s Kill Bill have reestablished the subgenre as the go-to subject matter for hip hyper-violent cinema. They allow the audience to actively justify their desire for onscreen violence because, well, the bad guys deserve it don’t they? Plus, the morality issues at hand can make for juicy thematic material. I Saw the Devil transcends all of this by taking revenge as far as it can go, thereby making itself automatically relevant. The film excels, managing to overcome its flaws because noted South Korean director Kim Ji-Woon knows how to tell a story with effectiveness and panache, unlike many others who venture down extremist territory.
The plot is purposely simplistic due to a reliance on repetition. The emphasis on immersing the audience in the utter brutality of Kyung-chul, (Choi Min-sik) and the incessant and questionable determination of Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun) is essential. Kyung-chul takes pleasure is assaulting and murdering women. The film starts out with his capture and murder of a young woman named Joo-yeon (Oh San-ha). Her fiancée Soo-hyun, a secret agent of some kind, immediately sets out to find the killer. When he finally confronts Kyung-chul, in what would function as the climax of a typical film of its kind, Soo-hyun beats his fiancée’s killer severely, but does not kill him; he lets him go. The rest of the film depicts a repetitious game of cat-and-mouse so Soo-hyun can carry out his revenge again and again and in increasingly merciless ways.
I Saw the Devil takes the revenge film as far as it can possibly go. It forces the audience to not only experience events from Kyung-chul’s perverse perspective, but it throws itself head-on into the pit of torture, pain and violence that the two men engage in. All that exists for Kyung-chul during the film is an unhinged sadistic desire and all that exists for Soo-hyun is a need for revenge that is impossible to deter.
Its examination of what revenge does to a person might not be an outstandingly complex one, but it does its job well and pulls no punches. The idea that one must become a monster to destroy a monster is familiar. The really wonderful study that takes place in the film are Soo-hyun’s craving to prolong the satisfying feeling revenge gives him, and the idea of revenge as a functioning stopgap between the actual mourning process. One of Kim Ji-woon’s strengths is his execution of specific moments that elevate the material. There are two moments where his study on revenge is fully realized. One is when you can actually see in Soo-hyun’s face that the feeling he has choking Kyung-chul is something he does not want to end. The second moment comes at the very end and is very affecting and adds a lot to our understanding of Soo-hyun. This is something Kim does with similarly excellent results in A Bittersweet Life, also starring Lee-Byung-hun.
Kim Ji-Woon is a filmmaker who knows how and when to use style. He chooses his moments carefully and infuses them with a trendy sensibility without allowing style to overwhelm his film. His always impeccably choreographed fight scenes are on display, riveting as ever. A confrontation in a greenhouse as well as a rather incredible scene that takes place in a taxi cab are two scenes where Kim’s penchant for building up tension and delivering action heavy scenes are on display. The pacing in I Saw the Devil is among the most accomplished in recent memory. Clocking in at almost two and a half hours, the film flies by, yet it never feels rushed. Kim takes his time letting the story unfold and allowing atmosphere and mood to sink in, without the running time ever imposing itself. It is fully engrossing throughout which is not an easy feat.
There are still weaknesses that cannot be ignored. The first is that Kim’s characterizations can be a bit too simplistic. It may be thematically understandable for the film to have a one track mind given the very succinct motives of the characters but Soo-hyun and Kyung-chul could have had more depth without losing the ferocity of their motives. This can be attributed to screenwriter Park Hoon-jung (this is Kim’s first film as director only), but characterization has never been Kim’s strong point. There are certainly moments that add quite a lot to our understanding of the two, but it is hard not to wish there had been a bit more.
This film is meant to be extreme and you will not see any arguments from me on the level of violence on display in relation to Kim’s vision. At a certain point though, seeing sexual assault after sexual assault on women adds nothing to the proceedings. This kind of violence is always a tricky subject and it is always going to be somewhat problematic. Aligning us with Kyung-chul and showing us his encounters with women is important to the story. The film is meant to be extremely disturbing but after a couple of these scenes, the audience full well understands the kind of person Kyung-chul is. Certain scenes could have been cut or shortened without losing any kind of its extremist point-of-view. It gets to a point where every time a woman walks onscreen, one can assume there will be an assault, and it becomes disconcerting and obnoxious.
It is impossible to give a blanket recommendation to I Saw the Devil because it is not for everyone’s tastes. Its problems cannot be ignored, and yet I cannot shake it. There is so much to admire here in the ferocity of its vision and execution. The performances are thoroughly strong but it is Choi Min-sik who is nothing less than captivating, giving one of the most memorable portrayals of a serial killer. Whether one thinks it is trussed up trash or a meaningful study on the nature of revenge, it makes no apology for what it is. Unlike many an empty-headed slasher film, I Saw the Devil shows that something meaningful can be said when it uses violence and its impeccable orchestration makes this a must-see for anyone up to the challenge.