I have a mixed relationship with Kim Jee-Woon’s films although to be fair I have only seen two of them, I watched his spaghetti western comedy ‘The Good, the Bad and the Weird (2008) and I loved it. I don’t the same love for his follow up ‘I Saw The Devil’ (2010), the film is a violent horror thriller starring South Korean actors Choi Min-Sik and Lee Byung-Hun in the lead roles.
The film begins quietly with a bus driving through a lonely street in the dead of night, the driver Jang Kyung-Chul played by Min-Sik notices a car parked up on the side of the road. He parks behind the vehicle as if he is stalking it, we see a young women Jang Joo-yun (Oh San-Ha) looking anxiously back at the bus.
Kyung-Chul approaches the car and offers to help fix her tyre, she declines the offer although he decides to help anyway. Joo-Yun decides to call her fiancée Kim Soo-Kyun (Lee Byung-Hun) to explain the situation. Soo-Kyun is smartly dressed and he looks to be prepared for something important, the conversation between the two is brief and feels very natural. The phone call ends and we see Soo-Kyun walking out of a hotel room unaware of the horrors that await his fiancée.
She is ambushed by Kyung-Chul who begins to aggressively attack the drivers window in the hope of getting to her, he eventually succeeds and the scene ends with desperate screams of the helpless Joo-Yun, afterwards we see Kyung-Chul dragging away a bloody corpse.
The opening scene is tragic and disturbing to watch although compared to what follows it appears really tame, next we are greeted with a large crime scene filled with police officers and civilians alike. Soo-Kyun appears at the scene with a look of anguish on his face, it is not long before a body part is discovered which confirms Soo-Kyun’s worst nightmares.
He vows to track down and destroy the monster responsible for this crime, he is provided with four potential suspects by the chief of police and it is not long until Kyung-Chul is tracked down. Soo-Kyun catches him just in time before he is about to do some rather unpleasant things to a young schoolgirl he was supposed to drive home.
Soo-Kyun catches Kyung-Chul, knocks him unconscious and inserts a tracking device inside of him to keep track of his movements, he then lets his enemy go. To me this is one of the biggest problems with this film, you would think Soo-Kyun would capture Kyung-Chul and keep him in permanent captivity. Instead he leaves him go which ultimately causes further death and carnage, this happens multiple times throughout the film and it makes me dislike Soo-Kyun as a lead character.
I’m the type of viewer that usually isn’t affected by graphic violence especially if it’s used in the right context, the violence in this film feels like it is desperately grasping for shock value. It’s execution feels cold and exploitative and I think it goes to far, I have no problem with violence in films in general I just don’t think ‘I Saw The Devil’ uses it particularly well.
Back to the story, Kyung-Chul is left to freely roam the outside world and he ends up catching a ride with a taxi driver and two other men. The scene starts light with the taxi driver laughing and making jokes although the two others in the back don’t seem to share his sense of humour. I love how intimate the cinematography in this scene, the camera slowly pushes on a blade hiding in one of the man’s pocket.
The tension gradually builds and Kyung-Chul takes off his cap to reveal his bruised forehead and cut face, we cut to a close up of a Kyung-Chul’s hand pulling a knife out of his pocket. I love build up of tension in this scene although I feel what follows next deflates all of that tension. The taxi ends up crashing into a tree and next we Kyung-Chul in a pharmacy looking to treat his wounds, he encounters a nurse inside and attempts to sexually assault her in the backroom.
Once again I feel this scene is desperately trying to be shocking, the scene becomes more and more unbearable until Soo-Kyun blasts through a door with a fire extinguisher which plants into Kyung-Chul’s face. A great fight ensues with a confused Kyung-Chul desperately trying to fightback, Soo-Kyun easily subdues him and cuts out his Achilles tendon, once again Soo-Kyun has the opportunity to permanently capture Kyung-Chul instead he allows him to go.
This time Soo-Hyun decision backfires on him and Kyung-Chul manages to gain a slight advantage in this duel, more death and suffering occur with Soo-Hyun desperately trying to regain control of the situation, he manages to do so although this is at cost.
Despite the fact he is a disgusting psychopath Kyung-Chul feels like the most flawed and desperate character in the film, even though we are supposed to side with Soo-Kyun I still find it difficult to do this. He comes across as a robot devoid of any emotion and vulnerability, Soo-Kyun feels a little to perfect and the fact he continually makes decisions that lead to more death and suffering makes him unlikeable.
I understand that Soo-Kyun wants to prolong Kyung-Chuls suffering for as long as possible, it is also likely that he just doesn’t care about anything following his fiancée’s murder. ‘I Saw The Devil’ has a unique and interesting take compared to the typical revenge film, the brutal violence also adds to the horror and it no doubt leaves a mark after the credits start to roll.
I also respect the film’s bleak atmosphere, there is no hope for any of these characters and even if Soo-Kyun finally claims his revenge it still won’t bring back his fiancée, he is bitter and empty and getting revenge is his only motivation. ‘I Saw The Devil’ has a cruel ending that transitions into a nightmare, we see Soo-Kyun at his lowest point with the scene cutting to black.
The film does overstay it’s welcome with a running time of 141 minutes, everything runs out of steam and any form of logic goes completely out the window, I find the action scenes frustrating rather than engaging and they prolong the film’s unnecessary length. I find it difficult to recommend ‘I Saw The Devil’ the film is wonderfully acted combined and is beautifully shot. It also has a unpleasant tension that could match any horror film and violence that could easily turn your stomach.
Despite having quite a few positives I still think the violence goes too far, the film is too long and I find it difficult to sympathise with any of the characters. The story starts off slowly with a quiet tension that is effective and it then throws all of this out of the window to turn into a action thriller that doesn’t work.
‘I Saw The Devil’ is a interesting film that doesn’t quite click with me although I understand I am in the minority on this one, watch a trailer and see if the film could be for you. I never want to completely dismiss a film because my opinions are subjective and you have a better experience than me, I always recommend going with an open mind and you could potentially fall in love, you never know.