Screen Rant's Kofi Outlaw Reviews I Saw The Devil
Korean director Ji-woon Kim is quickly gaining notoriety as a cinematic auteur who is able either bend and/or blend genres in order to create something new, unique, strange and/or disturbing. Kim's horror movie / family drama A Tale of Two Sisters became the highest-grossing horror movie in Korea, and his homage to spaghetti Westerns, The Good the Bad, the Weird, has become a cult-hit in its own right.
With I Saw The Devil, Ji-woon Kim explores the serial killer thriller from something of a unique angle, and the result is a film that is sure to solicit visceral reactions from viewers that will likely include shock, disgust, horror, and even a fair bit of laughter.
The story centers around Soo-hyeon Kim (G.I. Joe's Byung-hun Lee), a highly-trained special agent whose fiancée goes missing one night after her car broke down on the side of the road. The girl's father is a local police chief, and after an extensive search the worst is confirmed when her body is found hacked to pieces and scattered in and around a creek. Her father is shattered, but Agent Kim deals with his grief in a different way: by seeking vengeance.
It doesn't take Kim long to find his man: a deranged psycho named Kyung-Chul (Oldboy star Min-sik Choi) whose great thrill in life is abducting young girls, degrading them, then chopping them up into bits after he has them begging for their lives. If that wasn't enough, we quickly learn that sexual assault, intimidation, and generally hurting and/or murdering anyone he comes across are also personal passions of Kyung-Chul This man is clearly evil incarnate - a mad dog that needs to be put down.
But Agent Kim isn't interested in simply killing Kyung-Chul - no, that would be too simple. Instead (and here is where this film will surely polarize viewers), Agent Kim chooses to trap the psychopath in an intricate game of cat-and-mouse, in which the killer's every move is countered by Agent Kim, and for every new foul deed Kyung-Chul attempts, Kim extracts another pound of flesh as punishment.
However, the line between hunter and prey is a thin one, and Agent Kim soon finds that he may be in over his head (and risking his sanity) in his quest for the ultimate revenge.
If you're a fan of Korean cinema, then you should already know how extreme it can be at times. I don't mean "extreme" in terms of the juvenile display in taboos or shockandawe that you get in American films, but rather the tendency to gaze into the darkest of human experiences with an unflinching eye. I Saw The Devil starts off on pretty horrific foot and only builds upon that horror from then on. Kyung-Chul is probably one of the most brutal and frightening cinematic killers we've seen this side of Hannibal Lecter - but like Anthony Hopkins did with Lecter, Min-sik Choi's sheer charisma and talent as an actor makes his reprehensible character totally engaging and at times very funny...if only inappropriately so.
By contrast, Agent Kim is quiet, mostly expressionless (save for that raging-yet-tempered fury in his eyes) and he's really not the most exciting character to watch (except for when he's in the midst of a graceful martial arts display). This film embraces the modern obsession with featuring villains as protagonists: we meet Kyung-Chul very early on in the film, and there are no illusions that this guy is the killer. He's a lively and charismatic scene-stealer, and most of the movie's run time is (wisely) dedicated to following this psycho from one dark encounter to the next.
The film gets especially bizarre in the second act when Kyung-Chul attempts to take refuge in a hijacked home with a serial killer "pal" of his, who also happens to be a cannibal (yeah, you read that right). It is stops like these along this "odyssey" of sorts that will likely distinguish I Saw The Devil as a cult hit. The other thing about the film that will likely burn it into viewers' minds (for better or worse) is the commitment Ji-woon Kim has to his often off-putting subject matter.
There are is a distinctly purposed way in which Kim shot this film, making it grossly intimate at the most disturbing moments possible (Kyung-Chul's encounter with a young girl in a doctor's office comes to mind) - but not in a gratuitous way, where there is some deep-seeded thrill at seeing these horrible or violent acts occur onscreen. In fact, the film's awesome tension comes from seeing tightly-framed and excruciatingly long takes of Kyung-Chul (or his cohorts) gleefully committing some sick and merciless deed, while we, the audience, are held hostage as powerless voyeurs, practically praying in each instance that Agent Kim will swoop in to stop the bad guy and punish him before more human misery can be doled out.
The fact that this cycle continues for well over two hours was utterly draining for me, and will likely be for most viewers; there were multiple instances where I checked my watch hoping that this film was done with its macabre exhibition, only to find myself having to sit through yet another squirm-inducing scene. I couldn't look away, but I also wanted it to be over sooner before later, which left me somewhere in a neutral zone in terms of how much I "enjoyed" the film.
One great accomplishment of I Saw The Devil is that Ji-woon Kim manages to in some ways make the hero's retribution equally as disturbing if not more disturbing than the killer's indulgences. Each time Agent Kim "punishes" Kyung-Chul, it's in a way that makes your skin crawl. You don't really want to applaud this guy so much as you're left wondering just how twisted his grief and loss are making him. Byung-hun Lee's chiseled face, blank expression and that possessed look in his hollowed eyes are often scarier than the mischievous smile Min-sik Choi flashes before dispatching yet another victim. It's a great juxtaposition that perfectly exhibits the concept of what happens when one stares too deep into the abyss.
As I stated before, there is one hinge to this movie that will surely polarize viewers: whether or not you can understand the idea of someone allowing a vicious killer to roam free for the sake of some deeper concept of justice/revenge. Every time Kyung-Chul hurts another person in the film, its hard not to be annoyed with Agent Kim for not killing this guy from the outset, and that agitation will be enough to make a some viewers write this film off as another example of a "stupid" story that hinges on a character making "idiotic" decisions that no one in their right mind would make in real life. Whether that assessment is true or not is irrelevant - it's going to be the knee-jerk reaction that some people have after seeing I Saw The Devil, and it's arguably a fair criticism to level at the film.
In the end, this movie is for cult fans who know exactly what they're getting into and have experience with the extreme nature of Korean cinema. Those looking for a more conventional serial killer thriller, this film would likely turn your stomach and dim your soul.
Check out the trailer for I Saw The Devil: