Well… that was unpleasant. Director Ji-woo Kim… or perhaps I should say the brilliant Ji-woo Kim’s film ‘I Saw the Devil’ wasn’t as miserable a film watching experience for me as say ‘The Lovely Bones’ was… easily the worst time I’ve ever had at the movies… But ‘I Saw the Devil’ wasn’t a heckuva lot of fun to sit through. Still… it is a rather amazing piece of cinema. In the same way that the extremely depressing and nihilistic ‘No Country for Old Men’ was an amazing piece of cinema. ‘The Lovely Bones’ on the other hand was just depressing garbage.
It’s a cold snowy night and Joo Yeon (San-ah Oh) is pulled over due to being stuck in the snow, on top of having flat, but she’s not terribly concerned because the tow truck is on the way and she is on the line with her fiancée Hyeon Soo (Byung-hun Lee) a member of the South Korean version of the Secret Service. A man stops to offer his assistance, Hyeon Soo advises his lady to just stay in the car and wait for the tow truck as he hangs up the phone. This will be last time he speaks to his fiancée.
The crime committed against this poor woman is particularly horrific, literally destroying Hyeon Soo and Joo Yeon’s father, but while Hyeon soo could not protect his future pregnant wife, he promises to inflict pain ten thousand times of what she felt onto the person that did her harm. With the help of his retired police officer father-in-law, Hyeon soo has a list of suspects. He extracts information from these suspects in ways that I’m certain is not sanctioned in any remotely civilized civilization, but his methods are effective. Eventually he finds this guy, a bus driver named Kyung Chul (Min-sik Choi), it is not an understatement to say that the character of Kyung Chul is one of the most debase, foul, unpleasant, unlikable characters that you will ever have the displeasure of witnessing in action in the history of cinema. Hannibal Lector wouldn’t even eat this guy, that’s how rotten he is.
The easy thing for Hyeong soo to do would be just to beat this guy to death, which he had ample opportunity to do because Hyeong soo is pretty badass in his own right, but he made a promise. He must make this man pay for his crimes against humanity, and
his crimes are many. Sure enough, with the help of some fancy technology, Hyeong soo sets about the business of making Kyung Chul’s life a living hell and it looks like he is succeeding in this. Unfortunately Hyeong soo miscalculated just a little bit. You see he’s playing a game that this man enjoys playing. Ultimately this will be a game that Hyeon soo cannot win, no matter what the outcome. There will be repercussions and consequences.
For starters, considering the last few movies out of South Korea that I’ve seen, if I was a South Korean woman I’d be getting the hell out of there. Seriously. I’d even be willing to check out what’s happening in Pyongyang. I might starve but at least I can avoid the plethora of raping, dismembering, ultra violent serial killers that apparently roam the South Korean landscape that get all these movies made about them. Good Lord. Anyway, I think one could make the argument that director Kim skirted the bounds of good taste when displaying the levels of violence that is presented to us in his film. I’ve seen bloodier and gorier movies than ‘I Saw the Devil’ but this was a movie that has a level of violence that you feel and experience as opposed to just benignly observing. If the purpose of this violence is to further illustrate what a sick bastard Kyung chul is, with Min-sik Choi playing the role who is without argument one of the best actors of this generation, he didn’t need the help. Nonetheless, this excessive violence does have impact. In fact the entire movie has impact. You don’t so much watch ‘I Saw the Devil’ as much as you experience this movie and wince at it. As he has proven in his previous films, you would be hard pressed to find a director with the visual touch of Ji-woo Kim who creates images that almost jump off the screen. Considering what we are looking at on this screen this time around, I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not.
When we say that Min-sik Choi is a great actor, we mean it. He’s created a character here that is so vile and so reprehensible, completely soulless, a character whose mindset is simply geared to destruction and self gratification… but yet due to the talent of this actor he is almost impossible to take your eyes off of. A painful death cannot come soon enough for this guy, but his death will satisfy no one and the character of Hyeong soo is unfortunately the last person in this movie who realizes this.
This is a Korean Revenge Movie so it does have to stand up to the plethora of Korean Revenge Movies that have come before it and while ‘I Saw the Devil’ is very good, it still has to take a beat seat to Park’s ‘Old Boy’ or Na’s ‘The Chaser’. The main reason for this would be the characters which are a little light. There’s really no rhyme or reason why Kyung chul does what he does outside of the fact he’s a sick bastard. Lee’s Hyeon soo isn’t so much a sketchy character, I mean his motivations are pretty damn clear and Lee does a good job with the characters emotion machinations, but it is still a ‘what you see is what you get’ type of character. And the Korean people have some very solid craniums. You would think that getting beat on the head with various blunt force objects; hammers, crowbars, fire extinguishers and the like would actually kill somebody as opposed to just keeping them unconscious for a little while. Impressive.
Violent, brutal, unpleasant and completely devoid of bloodlust satisfaction… I give you ‘I Saw the Devil’. You also have an actor and a director near the top of their respective games. Proceed at your own risk.