A hit on the festival circuit, I Saw the Devil starts as a typical revenge thriller, where Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hung, who also stared in Kim’s The Good, the Bad, the Weird) is on the war path to find the man who brutally murdered his fiance (played by Choi Min-sik, of Oldboy fame). The film makes a dramatic shift within its first hour, however, as our protagonist becomes the hunter in the cat-and-mouse game. Where other films in this genre take time to establish a mystery element and leave the confrontation for the climax, I Saw the Devil brings Kim and Kyung-chul together early and allows them to literally go to war for nearly two hours. While it doesn’t add much in the way of originality, within the context of the revenge film genre, it does manage to construct a clever game between the two stars, involving a dynamic of control and brutality.
I Saw the Devil is about as difficult to enjoy as it is to recommend, but it’s two-and-a-half hour run-time holds many captivating moments. It would be easy to lump this film into the “torture porn” genre that seems to have passed, and its gruesome acts of violence will challenge even the strongest viewer. There are multiple scenes of rape, torture, dismemberment and the like, so this is film for only those who realize the risks. The biggest question surrounding the film (and any film which depicts such brutal violence) has to be whether the violence is “necessary” — it’s a question that I struggle with. The film tries to counteract this by adding an emotional back story and a protagonist who couples his intense rage and constant drive for torture with tenderness for his lost love. The execution of the melodrama never quite works for me when coupled with the extreme violence.
One thing the film manages superbly is the choreography and photography of its many fight scenes. Because the film uses very little gun-play (atypical for revenge films), many of the interactions between the two enemies involve hand-held weapons and chases. Kim shoots the action scenes expertly, always in focus and kinetic. The two lead performers are also quite fun to watch, especially Choi Min-sik, who is one of my very favorite actors. His portrayal of a vicious serial killer is right on point — completely over-the-top without any real psychological insight, but completely understandable. Any fan of Oldboy will instantly recognize his performance, even if without the emotional depth in this role.
While a troublesome film to watch, I Saw the Devil is worthwhile film for any fan of extreme Asian cinema. Even with its genre trappings, a captivating and well-made film often shines through and its kinetic pace and interesting action set-pieces will keep most entertained. Consider this fair warning and no one under the age of 18 will be permitted.
My Best of 2012 Playlist by Eric Garneau
After being inspired by some friends, for the past few years I’ve been really into documenting my musical exploration with year-end mixes. I realize this is not a particularly novel thing to do, but hey, who has original ideas any more? Anyway, this has gotten even easier to do thanks to new technology like Spotify. read more