Looking at American cinema, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Yanks take on revenge tend to involve the likes of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson angrily punching people and walking in slow motion towards the camera in a manner that can only suggest he’s about to whip his dick out at any moment. Korean cinema isn’t as bravado as that, focusing more on the emotional distress that all-consuming revenge has on the characters. With films like the emotionally gripping Oldboy to the cathartic violence of Bedevilled, it’s easy to see that Korean film makers do not wish to glamourize revenge but rather show it as a force that inevitably drives the characters into self-destruction. I Saw the Devil is no exception. While being overly long, this is once again, another gripping film from our Korean brothers which shows us things we simply wouldn’t get to see down at our local Odeon.
|Min-sik Choi as Kyung Chul|
From director Jee-woon Kim (director of ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’, a film that donned a strap-on of confusion and skull fucked you), I Saw the Devil is a revenge thriller that sees Special Agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee) relentlessly pursuing psychopathic serial killer Kyung-chul (Mr ‘Oldboy’ himself, Min-Sik Choi) for the brutal murder of his pregnant wife. Pretty standard stuff, yes, but the deliverance of the film is pretty unique viewing in Korea’s quickly growing collection of revenge films. Not content with meting revenge out quickly, Soo-hyeon catches up with Kyung-chul, dishes out some pain and then lets him go but not before planting him with a GPS. It seems Soo-hyeon wants us to actually have a film to watch. So for most of the proceedings, we watch Kyung-chul act like one of the biggest bastards around, attempting to rape defenceless women and pick on old men only to have Soo-hyeon show up, beat seven shades of shit out of him and fuck off to wait for him to do something evil again.
|Byung-hun Lee as Soo-hyeon|
The two main characters both give a rock solid performance. Soo-hyeon is a stoic man, with his grief hidden under a mask of grim determination. We see this mask slip from time to time as his in-laws desperately beg him to end his pursuit of Kyung-chul. We watch his determination evolve into obsession as his pursuit for revenge consumes him until we finally see the wreck he becomes after he witnesses the consequences of his actions. However, Byung-hun Lee’s performance is over shadowed by Min-sik Choi’s embodiment of ruthless serial killer Kyung-chul. A character that completely lacks remorse or guilt that steals the spotlight as he scarily drags his battered and broken body from place to place, inflicting his pain on others. The scariest aspect is that Kyung-chul generally seems to be having fun despite some of the horrific things that are done to him. He’s bleeding, he’s limping and he’s rummaging through his own shit at one point, but all through it he cracks that smile we grew to love in Oldboy and his presence on screen is just something you cannot ignore. He is easily one of the most memorable and evil serial killers to grace screens since Se7en’s John Doe.
With two such opposite characters, you’d expect to be cheering on Soo-hyeon until the bitter end, hoping for a cathartic climax in which he will finish the evil bastard that murdered his wife. But the film does a wonderful job of taking the palette of black and white and mixing it into a great big dollop of grey. As the film progresses, you genuinely don’t know which character you feel more sympathy for. Maybe it’s because of Min-sik Choi’s electrical performance, but you can’t help but feel sorry for Kyung-chul and some of the things he has to endure throughout the film. You feel bad when Soo-hyeon bursts him to ruin his fun when he was just getting his groove on, even though he was about to commit some atrocious act. Watching Soo-hyeon act like a man possessed also makes you wonder what kind of man he’s allowing himself to become and you will start making comparisons between the two as you realise they are becoming one and the same.
The violence in I Saw the Devil is what originally drew me to the film in the first place. Many reviewers claimed the film to be too violent; with one reviewer on IMDB claiming censors deemed it as ‘offensive to human dignity’. Instantly I had images in my head of people being beaten to death with their own arms, choked with their own intestines and raped with their own legs. The violence isn’t that gratuitous. The word I would use is unsettling. Look at violent films that plague American cinemas today like the Saw franchise. The reactions to these overly graphic death scenes is applause, or have the audience ‘ooing’ and ‘aahhing’ at some particularly gory, but creative, death scene. I Saw the Devil’s approach to violence is grim. It’s raw, gritty and can at times be over the top but some scenes will have you squirming in your seat at the general unpleasantness of what is happening on screen. This is also down Jee-woon Kim’s use of direction, occasionally letting us watch some of the squeamish moments and other times, cutting away and letting our imagination take over. Be warned though, the violence and general theme of the film treads into some very dark territory. Think of scenes from The Vengeance Trilogy and then crank up the violence to 11 and you get a good idea of what to expect.
Overall, if you’re a fan of Korean cinema, this is definitely worth your time. It is long, clocking in at 147 minutes, this sadly can make it feel a bit slow in places and can feel like the film has been padded out with some unnecessary scenes. It’s gripping and completely engaging but these scenes seem to diminish the film slightly as you occasionally find yourself checking how long is left, or looking at the clock. Despite this, I would definitely recommend this Korean revenge blood-fest.