Review: “I Saw the Devil” (2011)

Audiences are going to be all over the map in their reactions to director Ji-Woon Kim‘s operatically violent I Saw the Devil, in which he takes a classic revenge scenario and amps everything about it to operatic levels.

Along the way he may or may not be making statements about torture, institutionalized violence, and the human fascination with the monsters that walk among us. And if he is making those statements, they may or may not be full of shit.

To be honest, I don’t particularly care – because whether or not I Saw the Devil effectively illuminates any real truths about the human condition, it succeeds on its own merits as a gripping, terrifying, hilarious, and utterly unique splatter-thriller.

Ji-Woon Kim may have just proven once and for all that revenge is a dish best served with a side of kimchi.

In snowswept rural Korea, a young woman sits in her stalled car on a quiet mountain road, waiting for a tow truck. She talks sweetly on her cell phone with her adorably attentive boyfriend, and is apparently on her way back from visiting an orphanage.

She’s clearly fucked.

Life’s a drag in I Saw the Devil

Sure enough, a mini school bus pulls up out of the dark, and a middle-aged man offers to check her tires. She politely declines, saying that the tow truck will be there soon. The man walks back into the snow, but in a few minutes she notices that his bus hasn’t moved. She expresses her concern to her fiance, and reaches to turn on the headlights…

Thus begins one of the most elaborate, giddily insane games of cat-and-mouse to ever splash across screens.

Byung-hun Lee

With Devil, Kim – whose wonderfully gothic Tale of Two Sisters (remade as the forgettable The Uninvited)  and gonzo western The Good, The Bad and The Weird have made him one of the hottest and most unpredictable directors in Korea – dives headfirst into the heart of darkness and doesn’t look back. Fortunately he brings to the task a well-balanced visual style, a knack for building tension (the opening scene is ghoulishly creepy) and a strong enough mastery of pacing to pull off a two-and-a-half hour serial killer movie without leaving his audience by the side of the road.

As the grieving fiance dead-set on exacting the worst revenge possible on the man who murdered his love, the handsome Byung-hun Lee (I’d byung his hun any day of the week) brings a boyish idealism and beauty to the role that makes his decline into rage-fueled madness all the more disturbing.

Mik-Sik Choi

And as the central serial killer who will not be stopped against all odds – and I mean pretty much all odds – Mik-Sik Choi (Oldboy, Lady Vengeance) hangs it all out to dry, attacking the part of a man determined to convince himself and the world that he just doesn’t give a fuck with a ferocity that is down right chilling. His performance is as disgusting as it is bravura, and all the more terrifying when it encourages you to actually respect this monster for his tenacity.

As Kyung-chul and Soo-Hyun push their deadly pissing contest to increasingly insane degrees, dozens of bystanders of varying shades of innocence find themselves caught in the crossfire, setting the scene for some of the bloodiest setpieces I’ve ever seen, as well as some legitimately troubling and very realistic scenes of quiet terror.

There’s a good amount of violence (some of it sexual violence) towards women that I did not take to, but for the most part it sidesteps exploitation and is there for a clear purpose – not that it makes it any easier to stomach. The decision to aim for realism is, however, quite effective in encouraging us to root for Soo-Hyun in his quest for vengeance (he makes it his personal mission to interfere Kyung-chul’s attacks on young women), which of course ends up working against us as Soo-Hyun’s grief begins to turn him into a different, but equally dangerous, kind of monster.

It’s on this last point where, for me, I Saw the Devil falls just short of being a true masterpiece. Using a revenge framework to play with the roles of victim and aggressor is an interesting idea, and Kim inarguably pushes the concept farther than most films dare to go. But in the end I feel that he gives in. While the conclusion may be clever and perfectly satisfying, it undercuts the nasty, slick inertia that he has set into motion.

Ultimately it left me wondering if he isn’t letting his hero – and us – off the hook.

RATING (OUT OF 5):

I Saw the Devil is Unrated and holy fuck is it bloody. It opens today in limited release.


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Buzz created CampBlood.org in 2003 to meet a need for a safe place for weirdos of all stripes to discuss horror movies from a queer perspective. Now that the campers have overtaken the Camp staff and locked them in the Arts & Crafts cabin he is questioning that decision.