review by Mark Pezzula
Directed by Jee-woon Kim
Starring Min-sik Choi, Byung-hun Lee
Contrary to the laws or society is built on - that justice should be carried out by those with the authority to do so and that revenge exacted by those directly affected by a criminal's actions is frowned upon - we live in a culture that believes in the "eye for an eye" adage more than we think we do. Ask any parent what they would do should their child be molested by someone and they would most likely tell you they want unspeakable things to happen to the perpetrator. Ask a husband what they would do should their pregnant wife be chopped into bits by the most reprehensible human being imaginable and he would most likely go one for hours about the numerous and sickeningly creative ways to pay the monster back.
Believing in "eye for an eye" and actually practicing it are, obviously, two different things. Most folks, when pressed, wouldn't be able to personally act in a vengeful manner, no matter how disgusting the crime. We would like to think all criminals (and especially the heinous ones) are Evil and, therefore, impervious to pain and suffering. Criminals, though, (even the heinous ones) are, in fact, human, and most folks don't tend to like to see other humans suffer, even if that other human has committed crimes that would keep Henry Lee Lucas up at night.
I Saw the Devil, directed by Jee-Woon Kim, takes on the subject of vengeance and displays, with stunningly violent clarity, that revenge is a dish best not served at all. And when it is served, says the film, it's a meal that poisons not only those who serve and consume it, but those who aren't even in the restaurant.
Min-sik Choi (the Korean Daniel Day Lewis) is Kyung-chul, a serial killer who has no M.O. other than making sure his victims are dead. "Cold blooded" is a kind term for Kyung-chul, whose empathy gap is wider than the Grand Canyon, and who treats even people trying to help him with contempt and hatred. As the film opens, we find Kyung-chul viciously beating and murdering a young woman stranded on the side of a snowy Korean road. Believing he's gotten away with it scot-free, Kyung goes back to his day job - driving around school children.
Meanwhile, Kim Soo-hyeon (played by Byung hun-Lee) is the husband of the young murdered woman, and he has vowed to his dead wife that the killer will feel the same pain she has. Using his contacts in a secret agency (the name and purpose of which is left unclear - it's obvious, though, Kim Soo-hyeon is a pretty bad ass trained assassin), he hunts down Kyung-chul to begin a game of cat and mouse with the deviant. Becoming just as sadistic as the killer, Kim tortures Kyung-chul only to let him go, capturing him again and again, torturing and releasing every time.
If I Saw the Devil sounds violent and disturbing, that is because it is. Director Jee-woon Kim lets the camera linger on head-beatings, a cheek piercing, an Achille's heel slicing, stabbings, and other vicious acts. But this isn't a Hostel or another American "torture-porn" film, where the audience roots for the main characters to be killed in all sorts of fun and creative ways. I Saw the Devil pushes the audience to actively want the mayhem to stop. As gorgeously shot and well choreographed as the movie is (and it is indeed beautiful, with tense set-pieces that bring to mind De Palma, Hitchcock, and Tarantino), it's not a *fun* movie to watch in the least. Imagine if the intensity of the Mr. Blonde/cop-torture scene in Reservoir Dogs lasted two and a half hours, and you'd have a good idea of what it feels like to watch I Saw the Devil.
As fun as it isn't, there are many reason to see this film, in addition to the practically perfect direction and cinematography. The two lead performances being at the top of the list. I referred to Min-sik Choi as the Korean Daniel Day Lewis before, and that's not hyperbole. Most American audience know Choi from the film Oldboy, in which he played the lead character Oh Dae-su, a drunk, loser of a man seeking revenge after being kidnapped and locked in a room for fifteen years. His work as Kyung-chul is iconic. With slicked back hair and a slight pudge, Kyung-chul brings to mind Robert De Niro's portrayal of Max Cady in Cape Fear, although without the ability to be halfway charming. Kyung is completely and utterly socially inept. Every single person he comes into contact with understands immediately that this person is off, perhaps even dangerous. Choi plays Kyung-chul as if he's the most evil person to have ever lived, and he does it while still managing to make us feel slightly sorry for him during the most brutal scenes. It's great work.
Not to be outdone, Byung-hun Lee is magnificent as the shattered husband. Kim Soo-hyeon is always on the verge of emotionally breaking down for the first third of the film, and director Jee-woon wisely lets his actor's face stay in front of the camera for long stretches of time to convey just how broken this man has become. It's a powerful performance, and one that gives the film a deeply emotional and moving layer that was quite unexpected.
The other star of the flick is the director himself. The film veers from terror, to deep heartbreak, so shocking violence, to dark comedy, then pinballs between all of these throughout its excessive running time. While never forgetting that the subject matter is deeply serious, Jee-woon always remembers that film needs to entertain as well, and he keeps remarkably accomplished control over all of the emotional beats the film hits. The film is stylish, to be sure, but the director balances the in-your-face wow moments with old-fashioned tension building. (A stabbing scene in a taxi cab, for instance, ends with a wildly stylized spinning camera, but builds up to the shot with careful editing, designed to up intensity.)
For a film that deals with such violence, depravity, and serious subject matter, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed I Saw the Devil. It's a taxing film, and one that left me completely drained after I viewed it. It's a film that whole-heartedly supports structured justice, and one that frowns upon individual retribution. Nothing good comes of Kim Soo-hyeon's revenge. I Saw the Devil is ultimately a sad and distressing film, but it's one that will force you to look at where you stand on vengeance, and may (nay, SHOULD) change your mind about it.