I Saw the Devil (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Kim Jae-woon’s “I Saw the Devil” is no ordinary revenge story. I think the point of making a film as violent and as ugly as this is not only to touch upon what vengeance does to a person and of those around him but also to ask viewers how much blood, disfigurements, dismemberments, and other horrific images they can handle—all for the sake of entertainment. I admire and find value in it because the director takes an idea and goes for it without compromise. Needless to say, the picture is not for everyone. But it is for those willing to embrace the fact that within the depths of our humanity, our goodness, resides a monster. Some have no control of it.
The movie is dark, foreboding, and the morality it offers is quite bleak. It opens with a stranded woman named Joo-yun (Oh San-ha) who calls her boyfriend, Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-Hun), while waiting for professionals to arrive and fix her tires. She is approached by Jang (Choi Min-sik), a bus driver for a learning center with a penchant for kidnapping, raping, and murdering women, and offers to help. Joo-yun thanks him but insists that she prefers to wait for the servicemen. Soon Joo-yun’s severed head is found washed up under a bridge. Soo-hyun vows that he will find her killer and make him feel the suffering she felt before her death.
The opening act is beautifully operatic which culminates in a night time search for Joo-yun. The camera glides in and out of crowds as we strive to make sense of how much they know, if they have any leads or have found any clues, and get an overall feeling as to whether those aiding the search are optimistic or much less so. Of course, we already know Joo-yun’s fate so the outcome of the search is negligible. Still, there remains great tension because Soo-hyun is on the scene and he does not know what we know. How will he react? It is most appropriate that this tragic sequence ends while fixated on his expression. We are made to recognize the moment in which a part of him dies upon learning that his fiancée is dead.
Small but effective surprises pepper the story. One of them is that it does not require ample time for Soo-hyun to get to Jang. This is an astute decision made by screenwriter Park Hoon-jung. After all, this is a revenge story, not a detective story. But devil is in the details: What happens when a man who feels he is wronged gets his hands on the wrongdoer? Another surprise: the killer is not kept in a room to be tormented in every way possible. This would have been too ordinary, too easy, too generic. And it does not make a strong statement regarding Soo-hyun the secret agent, whom we assume to have a strong sense of justice and fairness, a professional who likely has planned out his life with a woman he intends to marry.
This is a classic character study in a sense that everything about our protagonist—qualities that make him Soo-hyun—is stripped away throughout the film. Like a fish flopping about as it struggles for air, we watch him try to survive when he has nothing else to hold onto other than his unadulterated and inconsolable rage. We then must ask: Which is the bigger monster—Soo-hyun the hunter or Jang the hunted? Then later: How do we define “monster”? Should the word be defined on a case-by-case basis? Is that even the right word? I enjoyed that the picture’s ideas are on constant state of evolution. We search for answers not for the film but for ourselves: our own understanding, our own fears and anxieties. This is a psychological thriller that inspires the viewer to look within.
Those who dismiss “I Saw the Devil” as nothing but extreme and violent are downright wrong. I mentioned its level of insight. But it is also disarmingly humorous on occasion, particularly the wacko visit to a pair of cannibals (Choi Moo-sung, Kim In-seo). Of course Jang would be acquainted with such folks. Naturally, there is an extended hallway sequence. Yet despite sudden fluctuations in tone, tension and curiosity persist. How will this specific story be resolved? Can it be resolved? Kim is in control of his material every step of the way.