Tuesday, January 3, 2012

I Saw the Devil

The two monsters of I Saw the Devil meet face to face.
So called "torture porn" is a dime a dozen these days. From the unflinching The Hills Have Eyes to Eli Roth's insipid Hostel to the endless iterations of the Saw franchise, anyone craving a variety of scenes of gory dismemberment can easily get their fix. However, none of these so-called horror movies (which are generally more horrible than horrifying) can touch the cringe-worthy scares of I Saw the Devil. This film manages to equal the wanton bloodlust of the aforementioned pictures while also possessing a surprising cerebral aspect in its revenge plot.

How far can one go in pursuit of revenge? At what cost? These are the questions at hazard in Kim Jee-woon's grisly picture, which explores the possibilities of the classic revenge tale in ways heretofore unseen. Korean secret agent Kim Soo-Hyeon (played by South Korean tv/film superstar Lee Byung-hun) is mourning the loss of his beautiful fiancé, who was kidnapped and brutally murdered by the unapologetic serial-killer Kyung-chul (Korean actor Choi Min-sik, most famous for his previous work in Oldboy another Korean revenge classic). Unable to confront the enormity of his loss, Kim focuses his efforts into a pitiless search for the killer, beating each suspect into helpless submission before finally discovering his target, Kyung-chul, who is in the process of raping and murdering another victim.

Thus begins a merciless cat and mouse game between them; Kim Soo-hyeon, made increasingly angry by the loss of his beloved, begins to exact his protracted, barbarous revenge. He assaults Kyung-chul again and again, releasing him and treating his wounds each time. The bewildered Kyung-chul must slowly figure out who it is who is after him and why. Not to be underestimated, the killer plots some revenge of his own.

Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) contemplates the motives of his unknown assailant.
So what separates this movie from other lesser, similarly sanguinary tales like The Human Centipede? One factor is the outstanding turns by the lead actors. Choi-min sik's Kyung-chul is a force of nature, undoubtedly the best portrayal of a serial killer this side of Hannibal Lecter. Everything about this character feels steeped in evil, from the slight hitch in his gait, to his dead-eyed contemptible stare, to his random mutterings and unpredictable violent outbursts. What makes his character even more frightening is that we're never given much of his back story. Following Kim as he investigates Kyung-chul's past, we learn he has parents and a son of his own, but we never learn what has led him to kill... though by his father's apathetic reactions when asked about his son's well-being, we could assume that perhaps he has always been this way. Either way, Kyung-chul's clever and boastful ghoul makes for one of the most compelling and despicable villains in recent memory.

Which brings us to the so-called "hero", Kim Soo-hyeon. Lee Byung-hun's grief-stricken secret agent is a blank slate, aside from the tears he sheds at his bride-to-be's funeral, and the deep well of sadness which never quite leaves his eyes. He initially carries out his search and revenge with a brutish efficiency. As the film progresses, and he slowly discovers that no amount of revenge can assuage his grief, or lessen his loss, the futility of his actions--combined with the unabashed savagery of Kyung-chul's own revenge--drives him to a barely suppressed rage. In this anger, he commits the most sickening act of the film... one that will make the Joker's "let's put a smile on that face" scene from The Dark Knight seem tame by comparison.

Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun) fecklessly enters the  lair of the beast.
Kim Soo-hyeon is a man barely under control; his desperate thirst for vengeance quickly becomes his only consideration. In exploring the extremes of the possibilities for revenge that his combination of skills (apparently being a secret agent in Korea means one must know martial arts), and the profundity of his grief (he remains unmoved even when begged by the family of his fiancé to hand Kyung-chul over to the police) affords him, he finds himself slowly morphing into a mirror image of Kyung-chul. In spite of the fact that Kyung-chul remains free to terrorize women, and in fact does so immediately after first being freed, Kim remains unsatisfied with the pain he evinces from Kyung and leaves him free to kill again and again. The line between good and evil is effortlessly blended and we, the audience, must wonder if there is any character worth sympathizing with who isn't a victim of Kim and Kyung-chul's dangerous game. Considering the many atrocities Kyung-chul commits over the course of the film, making him sympathetic is quite the challenge, but the sharply downward moral arc of Soo-hyeon's character is key... as it wrestles the moral high-ground from his bloodied hands.

Kim Jee-woon, the director of this epic ode to carnage, must be applauded for keeping the movie consistently engaging, despite its somewhat bloated 140 minute runtime. Kim Jee-woon's Korea is a fantastical, nightmarish hellscape, which is dotted with monsters everywhere one turns. In the course of his travels through this world, Kyung-chul encounters a murderous duo manning a taxi (in one of the most impressively constructed scenes in the movie) and calls upon an old "friend"--or as close as he gets to a friend--who is happily ensconced in a farm in the countryside casually indulging his cannibalism habit. One hopes this isn't a realistic glimpse of life in South Korea, but the heightened, implausible tone of the film underscores the moral of the picture: it's all too easy to become a monster once you abandon what's right in the name of self-satisfaction... in this case, the pursuit of revenge.

Jee-woon cunningly uses light and color to highlight the internal journey of his protagonist. Soo-hyeon mourns the death of his wife in an unbelievably white funereal setting, representing the initial purity of his character even in the face of his loss. But as he begins to hunt down Kyung-chul, the movie, like his inner world, grows inexorably darker. When first entering Kyung-chul's ramshackle hut, he is immediately immersed in an array of sickly greens, bloodied reds, the occasional frigid blue and foreboding blacks... colors that reappear with a noticeable regularity. Much of this movie is awash in red, whether it be from blood or Kim Jee-woon's lighting; the color often precedes, or follows, scenes of intense violence.

This movie is definitely not for everyone... children, for example, should certainly stay far away. People with a weak stomach for scenes of great violence (though often the terrors that aren't shown feel more wrenching)  may also want to give this a miss. However, for people that can manage to navigate the bleak, unforgiving waters of I Saw the Devil, it's ultimately a rewarding experience... rare for its genre in that the violence serves the movie's thematic purposes ( how easy comes the corruption of the human soul) rather than being merely exploitative. There are some far-fetched moments, one in particular concerning the tracking device Soo-hyeon implants in Kyung-chul, which strains credulity even in the implausible world Kim Jee-woon created, but as far as horror films and revenge flicks go, it's easily ranks among the best of its kind.

Gleenneen16's rating: ****1/2/*****

PS: It's my birthday today and, no pressure, but the greatest gift of all is feedback, so I encourage y'all to make free use of the comments section at the end of every post.


  1. I don't like horror movies and try as much as possible to avoid them. However, I was forced to watch this movie 'I saw the Devil'. It was gruesome and very graphic but very captivating because of its good plot. You captured the essence of the movie in your review.
    You seem like a very good film reviewer and know your stuff too. Could you please give your take on the new movie by George Lucas called 'Red Tail'
    Thanks and keep up the good work.

  2. Hi, great review. Can I link this review to my site at www.thebesthorrormovies.com/most_frightening_of_2011/2012/1/Top_Ten_Horror_of_2011 and I would like to know if you are interested to write reviews as well for the site. I count to hear from you.