For several hours after watching a preview screening of ‘I Saw the Devil’ I was almost lost for words. Still reeling from one of the most intense cinematic experiences I’d had in a long time, I wasn’t quite able to articulate what I thought of the film as I was still dealing with how it had made me feel. Consequently, any attempt I’d have made to give a reasoned critique of it would merely have resulted in me eliciting an excitable series of hoots, grunts and whistles.
Directed with astonishing technical flair by Jee-Woon Kim (A Bittersweet Life, The Good, the Bad and the Weird), the plot is a fairly straight-forward but interesting one. Kim Soo-hyun (played by the enviably chiselled Byung-hun Lee) is a police special agent whose fiancé, Joo-yeon, is abducted and murdered by the serial killer Kyung-Chul (Oldboy’s Min-sik Choi). Soo-hyun vows to track down the killer and make him endure the pain that his girlfriend suffered, and this he accomplishes fairly early on. However, his plans go much further. He brutalizes Kyung-Chul almost to the point of death, patches him up, lets him go and then hunts him down to start the torment all over again. And by implanting a tracking device in his victim, Soo-hyun is able to follow his movements and hear his voice, much to Kyung-Chul’s initial bewilderment and despair.
This quickly develops into an incredibly absorbing game of cat and mouse as each man’s obsession with the other becomes all-consuming. Also, it is soon apparent that, despite his frustration and fury at this turn of events, Kyung-Chul is more than willing to play this game and what’s more, he’s not about to let it stop him committing further atrocities. As Soo-hyun increasingly allows his obsession to blind him to the strength of Kyung-Chul’s resilience, we are propelled towards a final act that is utterly gripping, in which each man’s compulsion to ‘win’ sees him make sacrifices with far reaching and devastating consequences.
As the killer, Min-Sik Choi is as good as he’s ever been, perhaps better. There are moments where Kyung-Chul fixes his victims with a dead-eyed stare that conveys such a complete lack of empathy and basic human feeling that, in looking back at him his victims freeze, knowing that they are staring directly into the abyss. It’s a genuinely disturbing performance and becomes increasingly so as the film goes on, particularly when you start to ask yourself if Soo-hyun’s thirst for revenge can ever be quenched when up against such a monster. Perhaps more unsettling is the prospect that Soo-hyun’s actions, far from destroying Kyung-Chul, may be making him more dangerous and that, even if he could recognise this, Soo-hyun is incapable of turning from the path he has chosen. It is in exploring this possibility that ‘I Saw the Devil’ is especially intriguing, revealing itself to be a film that is as much an exploration of the destructive nature of obsession as it is revenge.
In tackling such grand themes, ‘I Saw the Devil’ is unremittingly violent, with the camera rarely cutting away when you perhaps hope it’s going to. For instance, anyone who had a tough time with the Achilles heel severing scene in ‘Kill Bill Vol.1’ should definitely approach a lingering close up in this film with extreme caution. It also includes some highly distressing depictions of violence against women, from the moment Kyung-chul wins their trust or compliance, right through to when he attacks them. I’m sure that the film will attract criticism for indulging in what some critics may see as misogyny and I’m not going to argue that point here. What I will say is that for me, these scenes were some of the most difficult and upsetting to watch but I think they are necessary if the viewer is to justify the subsequent actions of Soo-hyun, at least dramatically if not morally. In many ways the strength of the retribution meted out to Kyung-chul wouldn’t work if we didn’t appreciate how thoroughly inhuman Kyung-chul is. Also, from the Director’s point of view, such scenes are needed if he is to deliver the levels of intensity and catharsis that he clearly wants his audience to experience.
But were it filled with nothing but brutality, a film running to almost two and half hours in length would be a hard slog indeed. Thankfully, within that time, Director Kim also delivers some truly astounding action sequences including Soo-yung’s raid on a cannibal’s house of horrors and a high street face-off as the clock begins to count down to an uncertain denouement. However, the most astounding is a confrontation between Kyung-chul and the two occupants of a taxi that picks him up while out hitch-hiking. I’ll say no more about it other than your jaw is guaranteed to drop and you’ll find yourself asking ‘how the f*** did he film that?’ Also, the film has that curious South Korean knack of injecting some laugh out loud humour at the bloodiest of moments. Such instances are kept to a minimum in what is generally a very bleak story but the result of one character’s efforts to extract a kitchen knife from his hand while it is pinned to a table drew many a hearty chuckle in my screening.
I do have one small criticism of the film and it’s that the character of Soo-hyun occasionally feels under-written. We know that he is motivated by the devastation of his loss but we never really see a demonstration of this that chimes with the strength of his subsequent reprisals. He takes to the task of finding Joo-yeon’s killer with an utter ruthlessness that involves the beating and torture of innocent men (at least innocent of this crime), yet we never really get to know or understand what sort of man he is. Is he also a psychopath who finds a sort of self-sanctioned moral fulfilment in the act of vengeance or is he simply a man whose desire for revenge must be sated in order to enable him to grieve? Perhaps he’s a bit of both but the fact that the film spends little time addressing these questions meant that the character had slightly less depth than I felt he should have. Having said that, Byung-hun Lee is immensely watchable as a one man wrecking crew and his final emotional confrontation with Kyung-chul does go some way to demonstrating the maelstrom of emotions and contradictions at work within the man.
Minor quibble aside, ‘I Saw the Devil’ is an incredible film, one that I found to be both emotionally and morally complex in the way it made me examine my differing reactions to the plethora of atrocities depicted within. It is also one hell of a thrill ride. If you’ll allow me to get all high-falutin’ for one just moment, I’ll quote Ingmar Bergman who said that no art passes our conscience the way film does, going directly to our feelings, deep down in the dark rooms of our souls. This is particularly true of ‘I Saw the Devil’. It left me drained, disturbed, excited and breathless and as I walked home that night I have to tell you, I was bouncing.
Note: The version of the film I saw had not been submitted to the BBFC for classification, so it remains to be seen what cuts will be made when it is submitted prior to a DVD release. However, the ICA in London has been granted permission by Westminster council to show the film without a certificate and these screenings will take place on 29th and 30th April.
Step aside ‘Ichi the Killer’, move along ‘Audition’ and get out of the room ‘I Spit on Your Grave’, for you had no business being here in the first place (‘Oldboy’, you can stay but just make some room on the couch there will you?). ‘I Saw The Devil’ has arrived. See it.