Korean director Jee-woon Kim has emerged as one of my favourite international directors, from powerful horror/dramas like A Tale of Two Sisters to the emotionally charged revenge thriller A Bittersweet Life and over-the-top and hugely enjoyable The Good, The Bad, The Weird, Kim is just one example of why Korea shines bright in this modern movie-going age.
His latest film, the initially misleading but nevertheless fittingly titled I Saw the Devil, is perhaps his weakest yet, with a more straight-and-narrow, almost one-note approach that leaves it trailing behind his previous work. However, when you look at how good Kim’s previous work is saying this is his weakest isn’t necessarily as bad as it may sound.
While I Saw the Devil lacks some of the interesting side paths that his other work possesses in droves, it more that makes up for that with sheer courage of its convictions, diving head first into the well trodden revenge thriller sub-genre and not pulling any punches along the way (so to speak) with its brutality and ferocity.
The film follows the grizzly killings, usually of young women, by a murderous psychopath, Kyung-chul (played by Oldboy megastar Min-sik Choi). But on one occasion he happens to kill the pregnant fiancée of a police detective, Soo-hyeon (played by Kim regular Byung-hun Lee), not to mention the daughter of the police chief. As you would expect Soo-hyeon wants revenge on Kyung-chul but not in the usual sense: Instead of simply chasing him down and killing him, Soo-hyeon takes it on himself to teach the killer a lesson – several lessons in fact – repeatedly chasing him down, torturing him (or at least beating the hell out of him) before letting him go just so he can catch and hurt him again and again.
It is that latter aspect that gives I Saw the Devil its unique edge over her similar revenge thrillers. And while this puts the film on a path that it never really wavers from, it also gives it a tremendous amount of focus and doesn’t leave the audience in the wind as far as what’s really going on. This is a simple yet effective premise that promises much violence and bloodshed and it delivers on that promise in droves.
However, that’s probably the biggest problem with the film which stops it from joining the higher ranks of not just Kim’s work as a director but in modern Korean cinema as a whole. It can’t be refuted that the violence is absolutely necessary to tell this particular story but the film is often violent to the point of excess, shamelessly indulging in relentless torture and beatings that it becomes extremely difficult to watch. This isn’t a new thing in these sorts of revenge thrillers from South Korea – just look at Chan-wook Park’s Vengeance trilogy (which consists of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance) which is filled with all manner of violence – but I Saw the Devil sometimes (though not always) loses sight of the fact that excessive violence shouldn’t always be the point.
The film features absolutely terrific performances from its two leads. Min-sik Choi (in his first acting role after a four year break) is relentlessly brutal and, quite scarily, completely inhabits the persona of a sadistic serial murderer with no remorse for human life, proverbially squashing his victims as if they were nothing but insects. “Even though I am no more than a monster, don’t I, too, deserve to live?” is a quote delivered by Choi in his most famous role of Dae-su Oh in Oldboy. In that film, despite his violent acts of revenge/vengeance, absolutely deserves to live but the same can’t be said for his character here. You feel no real empathy with him because he feels nothing for anyone else.
On the other hand, Byung-hun Lee as the police detective exacting his relentless revenge on the killer does evoke empathy and sympathy as really, who could blame him for wanting to inflict a physical representation of the emotional and mental pain the killer has caused him by murdering not only his fiancée but the mother of his child (while she is still pregnant no less)? He obviously goes to more extreme lengths than most would think of (at least I hope so!), but you are rooting for him along his grizzly quest for the ultimate revenge. This is largely down to Lee himself who possesses a strange calm and cold charisma to him, and yet he’s also able to make you empathize with him. That’s truly a mark of a great actor, especially when you consider the horrible acts of violence he is committing throughout the film.
While I Saw the Devil is far too blunt, over-the-top, excessive and even downright sadistic in places, with less to say than the director’s previous work (the theme of “does becoming a monster to defeat the monster making you just as bad as him?” is laid on a bit thickly), it is still a film well worth seeking out for its guts, determination and powerful emotionality that oozes from all pores.
The DVD release of I Saw the Devil offers some very respectable extras, both in quality and quantity. Along with the usual trailers and TV spots, there are two 18-20 minute long featurettes.
The first featurette is of interviews with director Jee-woon Kim and stars Byung-hun Lee and Min-sik Choi. The interview with Kim is done better, consisting of him just sitting in one room talking about the themes of the film, the process of shooting it and what it was like working with the two leads. The interviews with Lee and Choi aren’t as well done as they are chopped together segments from various locations with no real structure to them.
The second featurette is your standard behind-the-scenes making of, giving us a cool look at the shooting of key scenes in the film. It’s always interesting to see the process behind the film and how what you see looks nothing like the scenes in the actual film in terms of the look and feel and so forth. The making of does feel a bit chopped off and erratic but fascinating to watch post-film.
I Saw the Devil was released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK by Optimum Releasing on May 9th, 2011.