If you’ve heard much about Kim Ji-woon’s 2010 film I Saw the Devil, then you’ve probably heard the truth. It’s a brutal, disturbing, visceral thriller; a cacophony of moral issues; and a good way to spend 135 minutes if you want to see a lot of blood spewed across the screen. Sometimes you’ll thrill to the film’s intense chase scenes, sometimes you’ll be nauseated by the grisly mutilations, but at no time will you be bored. I Saw the Devil doesn’t beat around the bush, either – we open to a crime of horrific violence, and almost every moment afterward is volatile repercussion from that scene. It can be exhausting, and the film sometimes seems unsure of how deeply it wants to engage its philosophical issues, but there’s no denying it accomplishes what it sets out to do – give a graphic, shocking depiction of the dangers of violence and revenge.
When I Saw the Devil first came out, it was often confused as a Chan-Wook Park film (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance), and it’s easy to see why. Ji-woon picks up on very similar themes to Park. The film tells the story of Soo-hyun, whose fiancé is brutally murdered by serial rapist and killer Kyung-chul. After tracking Kyung-chul down, though, Soo-hyun doesn’t simply proceed to kill him; instead, he begins a twisted game of cat-and-mouse in order to make Kyung-chul properly pay for his crime (cue the question of who “the devil” really is.) Not surprisingly, this game spins out of control, and we must question Soo-hyun’s means while seeing exactly what evil Kyung-chul is capable of. The film raises similar questions to Park’s films – what does violence do to people? What vengeance is vengeance enough? And can any vengeance ever be enough? It’s good to have some more complex subtext to help justify the rancid image on display here, but unfortunately, Devil’s straightforward plot never opens these questions up to the same level of ambiguity as Park’s films. Other critics have cheered the film for it also focusing on the ideas of loss, sadness, and despair in these situations, but those moments felt more like tokens to me, too emotionally loaded for the director to risk properly slowing down the film to feel them.
That said, if you’re not in it for the philosophical complexity, I Saw the Devil definitely delivers in terms of visual assault. It moves nimbly between a suspense-thriller, a fist-flying action film, and gut-twisting torture-porn. If you like films that slap you in the face, shake you hard, and demand your attention, you’ll probably be swept up by Devil’s balls-to-the-wall pacing. It’s also willing to be a bit pulpier than Park’s films, so you’ll get all carnage you want plus some – spurting blood, broken bones, and severed body parts galore. Sometimes the excessiveness of it all can undercut the more grounded psychological horror the film wants to deliver, but fortunately you have Oldboy’s Choi Min-sik as Kyung-chul. Min-sik creates one of the all-time great cinematic killers in Kyung-chul, a blank face that initially seems like your garden variety pervert before revealing a wired, power-obsessed madman who is in love with his ability to abuse people. The crackling, fired up performance is terrifying – electric enough to keep you fascinated, but resisting the possibility of hammy, Hannibal Lecter-like theatrics. Kyung-chul feels weirdly genuine, and in a film that can burn you out with its pedal-to-the-medal style, he’s the one that keeps the events onscreen feeling deeply, horrifyingly real.
Josh has studied film at the Universities of Missouri and Florida, and he is currently studying horror film and popular culture in the Communication and Culture program at Indiana University. He has previously worked with the True/False Documentary Film Festival and the Ragtag Theatre in Columbia, Missouri, and he served as short-term production assistant on This Film Is Not Yet Rated. He is currently working on a dissertation on independent horror, horror film festivals, and horror fandom; feel free to contact him to discuss any of the above! He is also studying Dark Carnival Film Festival (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com).