I Saw the Devil (2010)
Director: Kim Ji-woon
Writers: Park Hoon-jung
Starring: Lee Byung-hun, Choi Min-sik and Jeon Gook-hwan

The Plot: Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik, of Old Boy fame) is a sadistic serial killer who stalks the highways at night looking for fresh female victims. Out film begins with him finding a victim whose car has broke down on the side of the road, and we watch as he captures and ultimately kills the young woman. Unknown to Kyung-chul this young woman also happens to be the fiance of Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun, The Good, The Bad and The Weird), a special agent and general tough-guy. Soo-hyeon is soon on the hunt for Kyung-chul, but he doesn’t just want to kill the mass murderer. He wants to make him suffer. To do this, he will hunt him down and wound him for every attempt he makes at a new victim. He will butcher him at every turn until the killer simply can not stand the violence any more. Will Soo-hyeon succeed, or will Kyung-chul prove that his sadism can far outweigh that of this mad-detective?

The Review
Director Kim Ji-Woon has been a familiar name amongst genre film fans ever since he wrapped on the incredibly popular A Tale of Two Sisters, but he has shown himself to be a versatile director who doesn’t simply stick to one facet of genre filmmaking. With his most buzzworthy title in recent years, The Good, The Bad and The Weird, he delivered a Manchurian/Korean action-western completely unlike anything cinema has ever seen before. A combination of outrageous and over the top action along with a sentimental passion for the American (and Italian) western, it created a magical concoction that most audiences simply couldn’t get enough of. Skip forward a few years later and we have Ji-Woon’s latest, which may not prove to be as popular as The Good, The Bad and The Weird has been, but it is only because of how unsettling and violent the feature is. Ballyhooed because of its violent and grim atmosphere, I Saw the Devil has unfortunately been labeled as a piece of Extreme cinema when in reality it is not. There are a few sequences that are laborious on the nerves, but generally the heart and soul of the movie keeps it far and away from the likes of Grotesque.

When you break the film down structurally, you have to admit that a lot of the things that I Saw the Devil has to say are not entirely unique. After having just finished my review for The Manhunt, it has dawned on me that there are almost as many anti-vigilantism films as there are pro-vigilante. The selfishness and pointlessness of the act has been discussed on so many levels that you wonder if we really need re-treads of this same old topic. As a viewer, it seems like a subject that we may not be overly enthused to see explored yet again, but sometimes the delivery is all that matters when it comes to a title such as this one. That is where I Saw the Devil comes in. What Kim Ji-Woon does is finds another way to say these things while also pushing us in the audience to actively participate in his film on an emotional level. Through his use of intense atmosphere, tension and even, yes, violence, he is able to create a film where the overall theme may not be considered the most unique in the long run but the delivery is surely something entirely its own in every sense. This is a genre-bending serial killer thriller, with faint touches of action cinema as well as general horror movie aesthetics. There is gore, there is action and there are even moments of humor. It is almost impossible to pin the movie down in one area however. This is something entirely of Kim Ji-Woon’s creation.

From the opening sequence, we know that something is different about this film. Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik), our serial killer, is introduced to the audience face first as he peers into the window of a woman in distress on the side of the road. With her car broken down, he poses as a man trying to help as a way of getting close enough to capture the woman. The entire sequence is rather creepy from the start and simply having a vague idea for what this film will deliver, the entire audience should know at this point that something is terribly wrong with the situation and we should be on-guard. However, when the inevitable murder actually happened, I still felt a minor shock.This is a serial killer film after all. Surely the audience isn’t supposed to know the face and the identity of the killer right from the beginning, should they? And if they do, surely it shouldn’t be done in such a matter-of-fact fashion! I Saw the Devil categorizes itself as a character driven piece at this point and our adversarial relationship is then established. We then see Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun) go on his trail of revenge and as he does so, we see that he has also left behind his good nature. It is a cliche of sorts, but the character ultimately does become a monster in the process of trying to destroy a monster.

Kim Ji-Woon’s film delivers a passionate story that relies as much on its brutality as it does its tension-filled scripting. As the film progresses, the drama multiplies and the final act becomes a back and forth battle between these two characters. As we watch the two escalate their war against one another, the lack of compassion begins to really take its hold on the audience. The audience, if they can accept the film as a genre experimentation and allow themselves to be wrapped up in the characters, will find a very emotional piece of storytelling. The final shot, which has been both praised and found to be laughable by many, seems to show the mental cost of this tragic story and speaks volumes for the cyclical nature of revenge and its costly aftereffects. Although the emotional response that I Saw the Devil will have on its audience may remain debatable, from a style and aesthetic angle this film unquestionably delivers in spades. After having sat through the film, I must admit that I am in awe of the very popular taxi-ride sequence. This turns out to be a scene that will stand out in the pantheon of great South Korean film moments. Brutally violent, we watch as a three way serial killer battle erupts in the tight confines of a taxi cab. The only cinematic equivalent that comes to mind is the epic chase sequence in Children of Men, but this time around all of the action takes place within a small four door car, with no chasing vehicles. Blood spurts, the camera travels in ways that shouldn’t be physically possible and we are left both mortified and amazed.

The Conclusion
I Saw the Devil takes place within a strange reality where serial killers have all but created their own small subculture within South Korean society. With the ample number of South Korean serial killer films on the market, it isn’t hard to imagine such a world. Kim Ji-Woon however delivers a comic book-esque reality where our heroes take on their supervillain contemporaries, but the real world effects are enough to damage psyche of any man. A strange mix of varying elements, I Saw the Devil will devastate and amaze. I give the film a high four out of five stars and hope that others track this one down as soon as possible!