(2010) Directed by Jee-woon Kim; Written by Hoon-jung Park; Adapted by Jee-woon Kim; Starring: Byung-hun Lee, Min-sik Choi, Gook-hwan Jeon, Joon-hyuk Lee, In-seo Kim and Bo-ra Nam; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“Because these characters need to express their self-perceived power, if there were moments when it was difficult or uncomfortable to watch it’s because I wanted to show how horrible it was for those being victimized and the sense of power the monster has over his victims.” – Jee-woon Kim (excerpted from “Interview: Kim Jee-woon,” by Isaac Hudson, Cinephile UK)
“It feels like a huge rock is pressing down on my chest. Big and heavy. I promised Ju-yeon that I’d make him feel the same pain. It’s not over.” – Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee)
Note: This is an expanded version of a capsule review that was originally posted in August 2012.
Most revenge films rest on the assumption that a perpetrator of horrendous acts will be visited by some sort of (typically audience-pleasing) karmic retribution by the protagonist. I Saw the Devil subverts our expectations at every turn, denying us the catharsis of a villain receiving his just desserts at the hands of the righteous hero. The film starts off with these familiar elements: a merciless killer who crosses paths with the wrong guy. What follows seems to be a simple tale of a hunter becoming the hunted. As it progresses, however, we discover things are not as black and white as they initially seemed, with concepts such as good and evil becoming blurred along the way.
The story begins on a wintry road at night. Alone and stuck with a flat tire, Joo-yeon (San-ha Oh) calls her husband, National Intelligence Service (NIS)* agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee), in a conversation that proves to be her last. While waiting for a tow truck, a helpful motorist appears out of the gloom, but something doesn’t look right. Her instincts prove accurate, but it’s not enough to save her from an awful fate. After what’s left of her is discovered in a field, the grieving Soo-hyeon takes a leave of absence, vowing to catch her killer and make him suffer along the way. Once he’s found the man responsible for the heinous crime, an elaborate game of cat and mouse follows.
* Fun Fact: The National Intelligence Service is essentially South Korea’s version of the CIA/FBI, rolled into one.
Soo-hyeon illustrates how you can’t go through a pursuit such as this without compromising yourself in the process. He doggedly hunts down the killer, Jang Kyung-chul (played with icy effectiveness by Min-sik Choi), with the intention of making him experience the same level of misery and fear as his victims. As the film progresses, he seems to take pleasure in inflicting pain, but never reaches a catharsis through his actions. His quest to absolve his guilt and grief becomes a hollow, selfish act that leaves a trail of collateral damage in his wake. When he first catches up with Kyung-chul, he could have notified the authorities, which at worst, would have resulted in a slap on the wrist for his vigilante actions. Instead, it’s just the beginning for Soo-hyeon’s vengeance, which has dire consequences for anyone Kyung-chul encounters. Despite his sister-in law’s pleas to give up his self-destructive pursuit (“I know how you feel, but I hope you’ll stop. It won’t bring her back. Whatever you do to punish him, things won’t change. Revenge is for movies.”) he continues his personal vendetta, leaving further innocent people to be murdered and assaulted by Kyung-chul.
Min-sik Choi delivers a fascinating, multifaceted portrayal of serial killer Jang Kyung-chul. The film doesn’t spend a lot of time psychoanalyzing him. Instead, we’re left to our own devices to speculate on the origins of his dysfunction. He possesses some aspects of a sociopath, but to label him strictly as such seems limiting. His distorted perceptions of others (labeling those who cross him as “crazy”) suggests more than a blanket diagnosis. We witness his distaste for paternal figures when he confronts an elderly doctor who speaks to him in a fatherly tone. Women appear to be the object of his intense scorn because he considers them controlling. As a result, he chooses young, vulnerable women as his prey of choice, as a means of achieving manipulation and power.
Despite the intense themes and grim imagery, director Jee-woon Kim infuses his film with moments of unexpected humor. In an early scene, when Kyung-chul abandons his stolen car, he flags down a motorist (i.e., another potential victim), only to discover that it’s a caravan of soldiers. In another darkly comic scene, an unfortunate cab driver is caught between Kyung-chul and another violent criminal, in a bloody battle between two predators. When Kyung-chul takes momentary refuge with another serial killer the other man regards him with reverence and awe, like a demented fanboy. These moments of pitch-black comedy make the almost unbearable content bearable, allowing us a moment to catch our collective breath.
I Saw the Devil scrutinizes revenge, exposing it as a one-way street with no easy solutions and no victors. As the film’s title implies, the devil isn’t simply Kyung-chul, but also inside Soo-hyeon, in his blind quest for vengeance. His solitary decision to catch Kyung-chul and serve as judge, jury and executioner is a Faustian bargain that can only lead to ruin, fraught with peril for anyone who stands in the way. Instead of taking the high ground with Kyung-chul, he sinks to the killer’s level, plunging further into the abyss. I Saw the Devil is a relentlessly brutal film, which doesn’t pull its punches with its depictions of murder, maiming and victimization. There is a method to the film’s madness, which doesn’t let us off the hook in the final reel. The ending isn’t the release it would be in lesser films. I Saw the Devil reminds us becoming a monster to fight a monster is an ultimately empty pursuit. When searching for evil (with apologies to The Wizard of Oz), there’s no place like home.