Fantastic Fest ’10 – I Saw the Devil Review


Powerful Korean revenge flick pretty dang close to perfection

I Saw the Devil is a film that offers the best of both worlds. On one hand, it’s a classic throwback to the golden age of film noir and Alfred Hitchcock. On the other hand, it’s a brutally violent film with torture scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in the fevered dreams of Eli Roth. Ji-woon Kim, the critically acclaimed director of A Tale of Two Sisters and The Good, The Bad and The Weird, directs this relatively simple yet elegant Korean tale of revenge and two men’s quest to out-monster the other.

Byung-hun Lee (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) stars as Joo-yeon, a secret agent who, on the night of his wife’s birthday, has his world shattered when his love is brutally murdered by a deranged rapist. Min-sik Choi (Oldboy) is Kyung-chul, the psychopath who has left a trail of dead women and blood-stained knives behind him in his quest to descend as far down the ladder of humanity as possible. Joo-yeon, grief-stricken from his wife’s murder, vows revenge. Simple death won’t do, though. Joo-yeon proceeds to track down Min-sik Choi, subsequently capturing, torturing and then letting the killer go. Rinse and repeat.

I Saw the Devil is as close to perfection as a film can get. Beautifully shot, scored and acted, the movie is an unqualified masterpiece — a title I often find myself hesitant to grant to movies. Between the story’s exploration into the nature of revenge and its ability to corrupt a person’s soul to the powerful performances by Lee and Choi, everything about I Saw the Devil sings.

As Joo-yeon begins his quest for vengeance, he works with his father-in-law, a retired police chief, to investigate a number of ex-convicts who could be responsible for the serial murders. As he investigates and interrogates the suspects, Joo-yeon makes Jack Bauer look like a pacifist, terrorizing the men with crushed testicles and broken faces as he looks for answers. As the Korean police’s own investigation closes in on Kyung-chul, Joo-yeon finds himself at odds with the law due to the trail of broken bodies he has left behind in his search for answers. He has become just as hunted as the killer he is tracking.

Min-sik Choi absolutely steals the show as Kyung-chul. Kyung-chul is not a raving sociopath, frothing at the mouth while he chews on the heads of babies; he’s just really, really evil. Even as his pursuer is repeatedly torturing him, he can’t help himself when he discovers easy prey. He’s a victim of his impulses and, with Joo-yeon on his trail, this just means he’s a glutton for punishment.

Unlike when I was a kid and used to roll over and present my ass for kicking when approached by schoolyard bullies, Kyung-chul doesn’t take his punishment lying down. Joo-yeon’s tactics are nothing but an invitation for Kyung-chul to up his ante and increase his evilness. Soon, the two men are on a collision course, the results of which will leave both men with shattered lives and a trail of bodies behind them.

I Saw the Devil is a must watch. Too violent for its own country, the movie is brutal and oftentimes hard to watch. Ji-woon Kim does not shy away from the violence inflicted by his characters. In bloody detail, he shows the carnage they wrought and the lives they snuff.

Yet, despite the violence, something remains undeniably classy about I Saw the Devil. Maybe it’s the film’s powerful score, the well-composed shots or just the timeless nature of the story but I Saw the Devil is a movie that could have been made by Alfred Hitchcock in his prime — if he decided to dip his toe into the torture-porn genre.

Director: Ji-woon Kim
Notable Cast: Byung-hun Lee, Min-sik Choi
Writers: Ji-woon Kim

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