I Saw the Devil is exactly what I expected it to be: a bloody, Korean New Wave revenge film. Stylish camera work and gory violence mix with drama and dark humor to concoct a dark brew of evil one-upmanship. But is it enough for the film to just meet expectations or is there more to this horrific tale of blood?
Kyung-chul (Choi Min-Sik) brutally rapes and kills a woman stranded on a snowy night on the side of the road. For him, it’s just another victim in a long line of dead women, but this woman is Se-jung (Kim In-Seo), daughter of Chief Jang (Jeon Gook-hwan) and fiance to secret agent Soo-hyeon Kim (Lee Byung-Hun). Soo-hyeon is driven to hunt down Se-jung’s killer and force him to suffer for raping and killing his fiance.
From there, the film develops into a twisted game between Kyung-chul and Soo-hyeon as the two meeting is the end of the lengthy first act and the catalyst for a brutal and bloody second and third act. It’s a fascinating structure because the film should be lopsided with a lot of time spent on the setup and final act and a lean middle portion, but the structure works because it’s both the buildup and payoff that remain the most tense and suspenseful parts of the film.
That being said, it’s a shame the film relies on the woman in the refrigerator trope where the death of women serve to further male-centric plots. There is a small supporting role of Se-jung’s sister (played by Nam Bo-ra), but it’s extremely marginalized by the end of the film. Granted, every other character exists in the shadows of the two men who lead the film. It comes across as the one lazy and overused element in an otherwise interestingly built film.
Director Kim Jee-Woon and cinematographer Lee Mo-gae are the true stars of this film as they come up with so many well-framed and tensely shot moments coupled with occasional chilling imagery such as a standout moment where a water drain transitions from flowing with water to blood. It’s a moody, chilling film to look at. The images also conjure up ideas as well, such as how Soo-hyeon is often framed and shot like a boogieman in this film, complicating the idea of him being a hero.
I Saw the Devil is ostensibly a revenge film about how revenge is horrible and self-destructive. The film hammers that point home early on, but the extent to which it goes and how relentless it becomes is what makes it stand out. Soo-hyeon very much becomes a monster to monsters which is not shown here as some superheroic feat or vengeful, but deeply inhuman and sadistic.
Is I Saw the Devil a well-crafted musings on the dark side of the human thirst for justice gone wrong or simply another revenge flick? The truth is a bit in the middle. It falls into many of the trappings of the genre and relishes in the stylish violence but also doesn’t try to put its hero on a pedestal. Revenge is a bloody, messy business and I Saw the Devil wouldn’t have it any other way.
© James Blake Ewing 2019