I Saw the Devil

Looks like it’s Korean movie week here at Modest Movie. This one, along with Mother, are must-sees.

This is a bleak, bleak film.

There are really only two types of people in Jee-woon Kim’s I Saw the Devil: victims and monsters.

Joo-yeon (San-ha Oh) is a victim. She’s stopped on the side of the road waiting for a tow truck after one of her tires has burst. While talking on the phone to her boyfriend, Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee), a strange man knocks on the window. He tells her that it’s going to be awhile before a tow truck comes and that he could fix her tire himself. Her boyfriend on the phone tells her to stay in the car and wait for the tow truck. She listens to him and tells the man that she appreciates his help but that she’s going to wait. He shrugs his shoulders and walks back to his car, a large yellow bus. He’s back moments later with a cold look on his face and a hammer. It’s the last thing she’ll see.

The monster is Kyung-Chul (Min-sik Choi, the lead in Oldboy), a sadistic and cruel man who has no qualms about killing another human being. He doesn’t have any feelings, really. He doesn’t care for his family (he abandoned his son to be looked after by his grandparents), and he doesn’t have anything to lose, or to live for. He mercilessly takes the lives of others and the movie makes no attempts to explain his actions. He’s just pure evil. To give him a sympathetic back story would be a insult. Some people are just monsters, and that’s that.

There was one thing Kyung-Chul didn’t know when he murder Joo-yeon. Her boyfriend, Kim Soo-hyeon, is a lethally-trained elite secret agent. And now he wants revenge.

I Saw the Devil is like a mix of Taken and Hostel thrown into a South Korean blender. It retains all the nihilism and violence of those two films while removing any audience-friendly redeeming values. Soo-hyeon is a grieving man who vows to punish the murderer – by subjecting him to unimaginable pain and a life of unrelenting fear. It’s a common theme in film that revenge transforms the avenger into a monster. It’s part of the underlying moral code of film-making – that an “eye for an eye” can never be an acceptable measure. After watching this movie, it couldn’t be any clearer.

The central conceit of the film is the Soo-hyeon tortures Kyung-Chul just to the brink of death and then lets him live. And lets him go. And then finds him and tortures him again. Soo-hyeon tracks Kyung-Chul with a GPS tracking device that he’s planted in the murderer’s body so he knows his exact location. But that doesn’t mean that he’s in control. Every time Kyung-Chul is released the count of innocent victims rises. Soo-hyeon only attacks him when he’s just about to murder another woman, out of some twisted tribute to the memory of his dead girlfriend. He feels guilty that he wasn’t there to save her, and maybe if he saves other women it will alleviate his suffering. But it’s a moot point – if he just killed or arrested Kyung-Chul, nobody would be in danger anyway.

I Saw the Devil is a violent and exhausting exercise. Not since seeing Black Swan have I experienced a movie this tense and stressful. The ante is upped with each encounter between Soo-hyeon and Kyung-Chul. Blood is spewed, bones are broken, and flesh is sliced. It is an unforgiving and relentless assault on your nerves and mind. Like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games it gets to the point where you just want the violence to stop. But it won’t. Isn’t that what you paid to see?

I Saw the Devil is an incredible film if you can stomach its unsavory content and characters. You will not find a hero to root for here. But it will make you understand that instead of revenge, sometimes the only thing you can do is grieve.

A

Warning: There is a slight spoiler in the note below. Do not read if you like watching your films 100% in the dark.

Note: I Saw the Devil ends on a purposely ambiguous note (at least that was my interpretation), a characteristic of many great Korean films (Oldboy, Mother, etc.) If you do see the film, I want you to answer this question:

Is Soo-hyeon crying at the end or is he laughing?

Enjoy the movie.

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One Response to I Saw the Devil

  1. Julia Turnbull says:

    Sounds unbelievably frightening. I don’t think I can stomach this one. Even the review scared me!!

    Keep up the amazing writing!

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