By Ezra Stead
I Saw the Devil, South Korea, 2010
Directed by Jee-woon Kim
I wanted to like this movie a lot more than I ultimately did. Throughout its two hour and twenty minute running time, much of which seems intentionally designed to feel like an endurance test, I observed the multitude of things on display to recommend the film: great acting, superb direction, beautiful cinematography, not to mention a visceral intensity that has made it the talk of gore-hounds everywhere since its U.S. release, which is still very limited. There is a lot to like about Jee-woon Kim’s blood-soaked revenge saga, especially for fans of South Korea’s recent wave of such films, among whom I feel I can count myself as one, at least to a point. Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy (2003) is one of my absolute favorite films of the past decade, a brilliant work of art that only gets better upon subsequent viewings; I also really like his other films that I’ve seen – Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Lady Vengeance (2005), Thirst (2009) and his short for 2003’s Three … Extremes, “Cut” – as well as Kim’s earlier film, A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), a strange but intriguing and frequently frightening psychological horror story.
So what went wrong with this one, a film that boasts a visual style on par with Park’s best and even shares one of its stars, the always compelling Min-sik Choi? I guess what it comes down to is that simplest but most important flaw that kills so many otherwise excellent films – the script, by Hoon-jung Park, just doesn’t work. It will be impossible to delve into my mixed feelings about this fascinating but fatally flawed film without a multitude of spoilers, so the interested reader is hereby advised to stop reading now unless he or she has already seen the film; despite my overall disappointment, this is absolutely required viewing for all lovers of extreme cinema.
The story concerns a serial killer and rapist of women named Kyung-Chul (Choi) who claims his latest victim, Joo-yeon (San-ha Oh), at the start of the film, in a wonderfully grim and gruesome scene that remains tasteful without shying away from the realistic details involved in the dismemberment of a corpse. Tastefulness gradually goes out the window, as does realism in any regard other than the gory details, throughout the rest of the film. Anyway, it turns out that Joo-yeon is not only the daughter of police chief Jang (Gook-hwan Jeon), but is also engaged to a covert government agent named Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee) who, though we never learn exactly what his work entails, is soon revealed to be a supreme bad-ass who is not to be trifled with. At the discovery of his beloved’s murder, Kim begins a particularly vicious and single-minded campaign of revenge, targeting the four major suspects of the crime as revealed to him by Jang, before finding conclusive evidence that it was, in fact, Kyung-Chul.
Relatively early on, Kim has a golden opportunity to dispense with Kyung-Chul once and for all, but instead opts for a policy of catch, torture and release that he continues, with less and less plausibility throughout the film. In this first instance, after pretty severely bloodying him up, Kim force-feeds Kyung-Chul a tracking and listening device house in a pill-sized capsule (the capsule contains a GPS system as well as a tiny but seemingly very effective microphone â€“ quite ridiculous, but at this point in the film I was still more than willing to suspend my disbelief), then leaves him unconscious on the ground. When Kyung-Chul awakes, he manages to hail a taxi, which turns out to have been stolen by a pair of crazed killers not too different from Kyung-Chul himself. He overpowers them, stabbing both too death in an intensely violent scene while the car is still moving.
This is where the film began to stretch credibility to the point of distraction, not because Kyung-Chul is relatively free from further injury after a knife fight with two other men followed by a car crash, but because he just happens to have been picked up by a pair of murderers (in addition to their unprovoked attack on their passenger, Kyung-Chul discovers a bloody corpse in the trunk, presumably that of the original driver). Apparently, in Jee-woon Kim’s Seoul, nearly everyone is either a deranged killer, a cop, or an unimportant victim. This preposterous outlook becomes more egregious when we are introduced to a couple of Kyung-Chul’s partners in crime and depravity, Tae-Joo (Moo-sung Choi) and Se-Jung (In-seo Kim), the latter of whom utters no dialogue and is a complete mystery as a character, though unfortunately not a compelling one. Tae-Joo is a cannibal, and that’s about all the film is interested in revealing about him; he exists only to provide more shock value, which is increasingly amped up as we build to the climax. There are many cases in cinema in which the less is known about a killer or monster, the more frightening and intriguing that character becomes; this is true of Michael Meyers in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), for example, and it is also the reason Michael Mann’s take on the character of Francis Dolarhyde in Manhunter (1986) is so much more effective than Brett Ratner’s more faithful but less intriguing 2002 adaptation of Thomas Harris’s excellent novel Red Dragon. The lesson can also be found in films like Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) or Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), in which the less we see of the actual monsters, the more suspense is created. In the case of I Saw the Devil, though, what could have potentially been one of the more effective sections of the film becomes one of the clunkiest and most forced. Who are these strange friends of Kyung-Chul’s and why are they all connected? Se-Jung seems to be an accomplice rather than a captive of Tae-Joo, since she fights against Kim when he comes to their hideout in search of Kyung-Chul, but what exactly is she getting out of the relationship?
Another major problem with the film is the fact that both Kim and Kyung-Chul are seemingly invincible. Injuries that, in reality, would have killed or crippled either of them are pretty much shrugged off as they prepare for their next violent encounter. Again, the problem is not so much with the suspension of disbelief as it is a question of tension. The stakes are substantially lowered when both the “hero” and the villain are violent to the point of psychopathology, and also seemingly immune to repeated stabbings and blood-spurting head injuries. This points to a larger problem with the script, in that I Saw the Devil not only has a scarcity of sympathetic characters, it really seems unconcerned with creating even empathetic ones. I have no problem with movies about unlikable people, but there is a need for characters an audience can actually relate to, or at least care one way or the other about. By its very nature, the violence gets repetitive, and it doesn’t take long before we stop caring if Kim ever completes his revenge.
Probably the worst disappointment of the film is its admittedly well-staged climax. By the third act, Kyung-Chul has gotten rid of the tracking device (in a scene that actually trumps the extreme gore of the film for sheer shock value) and is threatening to turn himself in to the police, thereby ruining Kim’s plan for an ultimate act of revenge. This is his endgame? After committing so many brutal murders, his being will be fulfilled, despite spending the rest of his life in prison or possibly even being put to death (I don’t know what the death penalty laws are like in South Korea, but if they allow it, this character would be the perfect reason why), simply because he managed to escape the vengeance of Kim? Or perhaps we are expected to believe that he is so confident in his ability to escape that the idea of prison doesn’t even bother him? In any event, the tactic is reminiscent of John Doe’s in David Fincher’s Se7en (1995), without the brilliant and devastating follow-up that made that film possibly the best thriller ever made.
The film’s final trump card, in which Kim’s plan for revenge is ultimately completed (I won’t describe exactly how, in order to save at least one surprise for those who have chosen to ignore my warning in the second paragraph), seems to be attempting the kind of shocking twist now notorious in Oldboy, but fails to achieve the same impact, partly because of its lack of empathy for either of the two characters. Even excusing the film’s repetitive and ultimately tedious violence as a way to show the futility of revenge fails as an analysis, since the final shot of the film shows Kim in tears of apparent catharsis at the completion of his vengeance. By hunting a monster, he has of course become one himself, but this theme is severely weakened by the fact that we never really knew him as anything else, and by the end we are numb.
Despite all of the above complaints, I Saw the Devil is an impressive film, and well worth seeing for those who can stomach and/or revel in its violence, which is truly as extreme as you have probably heard. Choi is amazing as always, and the intensity of the imagery will not readily leave the mind of the viewer. This is a film clearly made by a director at the top of his game, but it is an attempt to make a great film from a weak script, which never works. It is a good film in many ways, but greatness requires much more.
Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’tGet.com. Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
For more information, please contact EzraStead@MoviesIDidntGet.com.