Slashers & Serial Killers in Review: I Saw the Devil (2010)
Directed By: Jee-woon Kim (A Tale of Two Sisters, The Good the Bad and the Weird)
Starring: Byung-hun Lee (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Three…Extremes) and Min-sik Choi (Oldboy, Lady Vengeance)
Released By: Softbank Ventures and Siz Entertainment
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated R
Review By: Andy Taylor
Every now and again you come across a movie that embodies everything a horror film should be, even if it doesn’t fit entirely into the mold of what someone considers a horror film. A movie that is extremely uncomfortable without having to resort to cheap shock tactics, brutal without becoming silly, and full of extremely realistic gore that doesn’t go so overboard as to become cartoonish. A movie that’s populated with fantastic actors, has a wonderful score, beautiful cinematography, and if it goes a step beyond, a message that doesn’t seem contrived or forced. A horror movie so amazing that both film snob and regular joe can agree is fantastic. Personally, I subsist on a steady diet of cheesy films from the 1970s and 80s, so cheesy is kind of my thing, but it’s nice to run into a horror film that’s as close to perfection as a film can get, and for me, that film is I Saw the Devil.
South Korean Secret Service Agent Kim Soo-hyeon is excited about his upcoming marriage, but when brutal killer Kyung-chul murders and dismembers his fiancé, the trained agent snaps and descends into a world of blood and mayhem, one where revenge becomes his only desire. The devastated and emotionally broken Soo-hyeon uses the vast resources at his disposal to track down Kyung-chul, torturing his way through other sick men before finally locating his target. Instead of killing the man who destroyed his life as one might expect, Soo-hyeon beats Kyung-chul, breaking several bones in the process, and places a tracking device inside of the man. This allows Soo-hyeon to locate his prey at any time, setting off a game of cat and mouse in which Soo-hyeon catches, tortures, and release his victim time and again, and with each occasion Kyung-chul’s pain is made worse. As the brutality amps up and the line between agent and killer becomes ever more blurred, Soo-hyeon begins to learn that vengeance has a price, and for the man pursuing it, that price is his soul.
It’s going to be a difficult thing describing how much I love this movie, even if several parts made my skin crawl. The words escape me when dealing with a film that is so very fantastic. There’s so much to like, the actors, the makeup and prosthetic work, the music, the cinematography, and most importantly, at least for me, the film’s underlying messages dealing with revenge and the danger of becoming the monsters you fight. Much like Chan-wook Park’s “Vengeance Trilogy” (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance), Jee-woon Kim’s I Saw the Devil is all about revenge, specifically, that no matter how justified, no matter how well earned, vengeance will destroy the one seeking it in both mind and body. It’s a very human thing to want revenge, if you happen to live in America it’s what our entire “justice” system is based on, but revenge has consequences for both parties. Wrongs should absolutely be righted, but when you let revenge become the focus, the wrongs start piling up until there is little left to differentiate the wronged and the wrongdoer. Vengeance is a fire that destroys the one seeking it, consuming them until they become the monsters they hate, and worse yet, it rarely stays between two parties. No, it radiates outward, destroying not only the one seeking it, but the people around them as well, and that is a big part of Soo-hyeon’s descent into darkness. He starts out as a good man becomes nearly indistinguishable from the evil that began his fall, and that loss of humanity is both tragic and terrifying. Tragic because he was once a good man with a bright future, and terrifying because Soo-hyeon could be any one of us. Though any trace of the good man he once was has been lost to him, erased by pain and rage.
His quest for vengeance is so all consuming that it blinds Soo-hyeon to the monster he’s become. Right from the beginning of his descent, he lets go of anything that might be considered civilizing, giving into the more primitive side of his nature. When he starts his quest, he only has an idea of possible suspects, but that doesn’t stop him from treating every one of them the same. He tears through a list of would-be and have-been murderers like an angrier, frankly better, Batman, torturing each one and leaving them as broken on the outside as he feels inside, and while I can’t say I had much sympathy for the sick people he tortures, the cost to Soo-hyeon’s mind is more than I’d like to ever pay. Even once he’s already done irreparable damage to his being, soul, or conscious depending on your point of view, Soo-hyeon is given multiple opportunities to back away and go home. There are times his humanity reasserts itself, times his rational mind begins to realize how far he’s fallen, but he’s so completely given into his despair that revenge is the only feeling he can hold onto for more than a few minutes. At one point, a man he loves, the one who would have been his father-in-law (also the man who pushed Soo-hyeon into following the path he’s on I might add), tells him to stop, to come home so they can all heal together, but Soo-hyeon has so totally become his vengeance, he literally can’t stop anymore. His fall is a heartbreaking thing, and it’s all the more heartbreaking thanks to the talents of an amazing actor, Byung-Hun Lee.
Byung-Hun Lee is, in my humble opinion, one of the best actors to grace the silver screen, though American audiences probably know him mostly as Storm Shadow in those somewhat fun G.I. Joe films. Soo-hyeon’s journey into the dark depths of revenge is only as emotionally impactful as it is because of Byung-Hun. There is a scene in the beginning of the movie where Soo-hyeon attends his fiancé’s funeral. He mourns as anyone would when losing someone they love so much, and the pain he’s feeling is written on his face, but it’s not how truly lost to despair he looked that impressed me so much, it’s what comes after. As the funeral wraps up, Soo-hyeon goes to leave, and in the 30 or 40 seconds it takes the man to walk to his car, you can watch as all his pain and sadness turns to rage. Not only that, but you can see him begin to leave his humanity behind, and by the time he finishes his short walk, the man who started it is long gone. Then there are the times where his pain becomes all apparent, those times his humanity tries to reassert itself, and he realizes what he’s become. It’s at these times that his acting shines like no other as an inner war plays across his face, his humanity begging him to reconsider, but his desire for revenge refusing to abate. He does such a wonderful job showing the audience how great a price he’s paying for his revenge. Towards the end of the film, he’s put in a very bad spot where for the first time in the movie, his life is in real danger. While in this spot, he has a choice of two weapons, a rifle and a sharpened stick, and while the rifle would have obviously been the better weapon for the situation, the fact that it wouldn’t cause as much pain causes him to choose the stick instead, and once again, you can see the little war of emotions play across his face. As amazing of an actor as Byung-Hun Lee is, his counterpart is almost equally as talented.
Min-sik Choi, who I will always think of as Dae-su from the original Oldboy, plays demented psychopath Kyung-chul. He’s an emotionless demon, and I say demon because monster seems a little too nice for this sick, disgusting creature. Kyung-chul is capable of doing things that would make even the sickest of men retch in disgust, and he does it all with something between apathy and mild amusement. When he’s first preparing to kill Soo-hyeon’s fiancé in the beginning, she mentions she’s pregnant and begs for her survival, and her reward is to have Kyung-chul indifferently but brutally stab her in the stomach. More terrifying than his emotional shortcomings is the speed in which he’s able to go from emotionless to full of fury. One minute he doesn’t seem like he cares about anything, the next he’s a screaming, rage fueled wild man. It makes for one of the best cinematic psychopaths I’ve run across, and Kyung-chul is far from the only psychopath you’ll meet while giving this a watch. I don’t want to spoil things, especially with one of my favorite parts of the film involving a pair of thrill killers and a taxi cab, but you will meet a very eccentric cast of killers, and by eccentric, I mean very disturbing. What’s interesting is seeing how much Soo-hyeon begins to fit in with these depraved maniacs, something a later introduced character even remarks on towards the end.
Besides the fabulous acting and the thought-provoking message, there’s also a hefty amount of fantastic makeup and FX work. I Saw the Devil has some very disturbing and very real looking gore, but it never goes so far as to become silly and distract from the film’s plot and message. The prosthetic work is amazing, with severed bits of people, and you will see lots of them, looking amazingly realistic. People are beat to hell, especially our emotionless killer, and they very much look like they’ve been beaten to hell, but never so much that it’s ridiculous. As much as I hate to admit it, there were a few parts that even managed to gross me out, and I am not an easy person to gross out when it comes to gore. Add to that the phenomenal score and the beautiful cinematography of Mo-gae Lee and you can see why I love this movie so much.
Before I finish, let me touch upon two things, words of warning if you will. The first is about which version of this film you watch. There’s an international version, which to be fair, is most likely what you’re going to come across, and the “original” South Korean theatrical version. When Jee-woon Kim presented his movie to the Korean Rating Board, they forced him to recut the film, otherwise it would receive a restricted rating, guaranteeing it would never be released in theatres, so he recut and refilmed bits leading to a longer version of the film. The international version, which again, you’re more likely to run across anyways, has Jee-woon’s film as it’s intended to be shown. You’ll also want to make sure you watch a subtitled version of the film if possible. Not only does the dubbing lose a bit in translation, but they picked just about the worst voices they could have for it. Soo-hyeon sounds like someone doing a tough guy accent, Kyung-chul sounds like a cartoon character, and Soo-hyeon’s fiancé sounds like a valley girl. I have no idea why anyone would ruin such a fantastic movie with such terrible dubbing, but they did.
The second thing is of a more personal nature and will likely vary from person to person as far as whether someone is going to be upset about it, and that’s the rape. Thankfully, I Saw the Devil, despite how explicit it can be, never shows any rape, though one is implied. I generally turn off films that use rape as a cheap shock tactic. If a filmmaker must use such a horrible thing in such a cheap way, I’m done with said filmmaker, I’ll try to deal with my feelings of revulsion and disgust. While I personally felt that the rape in I Saw the Devil was unnecessary, I didn’t feel it was used as a shock tactic, but more as a way to show just how sick and depraved Kyung-chul was. Still, it was something I’d prefer not to see, so I’m including it as a warning. I very much want people to watch this fantastic film, and I would hate for someone with similar feelings as myself to shut it off because of these, very few, parts.
Despite my one complaint, I highly recommend giving I Saw the Devil a watch. It is one of the best horror films, or dark thriller if you’d prefer, that I’ve ever seen, and if I had a five-star rating system, I Saw the Devil would be getting 7 stars from me. I think its message is all the more important in the times we find ourselves living through, when fighting monsters, we must be sure to never become them.
Andrew Willis Taylor lives in St. Louis, MO with his wonderful girlfriend who doesn’t mind his lengthy diatribes on why Benjamin Sisko was the greatest captain. When he isn’t writing or turning old junk into usable household items, you’ll find him exploring new areas, volunteering downtown, or plopped in front of a television watching Doctor Who and Star Trek. He also has a weird aversion to writing short bios that leaves him unable to figure out what to put down. I think he likes puppies or something too. Be sure to read his debut review here on Machine Mean with Near Dark.