I Saw The Devil is about a serial killer who abducts and butchers women. Except, he made a very bad choice in choosing his last victim. After receiving the news of her death the woman’s fiancé is most thoroughly pissed and tracks the killer’s ass down in order to get sweet, sweet revenge by going through a short list of possible suspects…. And by the time he does find him and kick his ass you still have two more hours of movie left to go.
Yes, dearies, the first 20 or so minutes of the movie comprise the basic plot for what could be, in many other circumstances, a full-length feature film. Instead, tracking down the killer and kicking his ass is merely the beginning of a much longer saga of revenge that includes more death, kidnappings, sexual assault, beatings, dismemberment and other various forms of torture. Because it’s not just enough for the protagonist to beat him up once, no, this is an antagonist who deserves to have his torment strung out, and the fiancé is more than happy (and surprisingly capable) of doing so.
Do not let the Stay-Puft ensemble fool you. This is what the South Korean
version of Rambo looks like.
But at some point the stalker becomes the stalk-e, and the dynamic between the two men turns into a dangerous game of cat and mouse, one where figuring out which one is the cat and which the mouse becomes ever more difficult.
The depictions of violence in the film are brutal, and uncomfortable and they’re meant to be. Some acts happen just off screen, but even then many are still as graphic as they are merciless. The killer, Jang Kyung-Chul (Min-Sik Choi of Oldboy fame), is in no way a sympathetic villain. There is no sad back-story meant to pull at your heartstrings. There is no tragic childhood trauma. There is no point where there are cries of ‘oh boo-hoo, woe is me.’ Jang is just an evil asshole, a human being so filled with anger, hate and violent impulses that he unleashes it on just about everybody who crosses his path, even those with good intentions trying to help him.
And don’t assume that the protagonist, secret agent Soo-hyun (Byung-hun Lee) gets off squeaky clean, either. Soo-hyun isn’t just a grieving agent, he’s a bad-ass grieving agent who decides to take some time off work to cope with his pain by systematically tracking down all of the suspects in the case and ruining their lives, regardless of their guilt in his fiancé’s death. When he finally does track down Kyung-Chul and gets his confession his goal is not apprehension or even death. Instead of killing the monster that ruined his life he instead wants to turn the monster’s life into a living nightmare, seemingly prepared to use any method necessary in order to do it. Inevitably as the film goes on the “hero’s” actions become less and less about seeking out revenge on the killer and more about trying to prevent further collateral damage. So the ultimate question of the movie becomes, how much of a monster does one have to become in order to terrify the monster?
W-Wait-…Which one am I rooting for again?
At first glance this movie is borderline torture porn, even with a good portion of the violence being just off screen (You see the hatchet. You see him swing the hatchet. You hear the *thunk*, but what was hit is just barely out of sight.) The difference here is that you have a “hero” around to break up the tension…only to then let the killer go so the tension can build all over again. The apprehension that builds and builds as you watch the killer slowly terrorize his next victim gets balanced when the ‘good guy’ shows up to beat the ever-living crap out of him.
And others. He also beats the crap out of others. He’s an equal opportunity revenge seeker, you see.
The majority of the acting throughout the film is pretty top-notch. Min-Sik Choi plays a masterful villain, one so evil and sadistic that it will take a great amount of self control to not be tempted to punch him in the face, thus destroying your television set. The other killers (yes, *shock* there’s more than one. It’s almost as if South Korea has an overabundance of them) are also believably TV-punching worthy.
Lee, on the other hand, sadly often comes across as a bit flat. I suspect that this is due to his character being more along the lines of the ‘stoic hero’ type, but it still would have been nice to see a bit more emotion, especially in regards to his fiancé’s murder. Instead he spends most of the movie with a blank look or glaring into space. Yes, I know the stone cold stoic archetype is a thing, but could they not work in a growl or even an eye roll? Hell, I would have settled for a smug smirk. I don’t ask for much.
I Saw the Devil is a horror, thriller, revenge and action film all wrapped up into a single package. It’s not for everyone. It’s almost less a movie, and more a very intense character study with a copious budget of sharp objects and blood. Those who like violent revenge fantasies will surely enjoy it. Those who like gore and realistic horror will also likely enjoy it. But the gore isn’t what makes the movie horrific. The horror comes in watching the prolonged periods of Kyung-Chul slowly tormenting his victims and seeing just how far Soo-hynn is willing to go in his quest, not to stop a killer, but to torment him just as horrifically as Kyung-Chul has tormented others. And before the movie is even over, you’ll not only be questioning the main characters sanity, but also whom the Devil the movies title is referring too.
I Saw the Devil is available for streaming via Amazon.
It has also been released on DVD and Bluray.