Remember se7en? David Fincher. Brad Pit. Morgan Freeman. Gwyneth Paltrow. Kevin Spacey. Remember how that movie ended? The horrific reveal. Well, imagine that the end is where the film begins. Imagine that the “box” at the end of the Fincher film is an urban river, that serial killer Kevin Spacey is still out there, singularly focused on his hatred of women, and that detective Brad Pitt, now understanding which deadly sin he is, accepts and embraces that mantle, in order to procure justice from said serial killer. The most climatic moment of se7en is where I Saw The Devil begins.
Kim Soo-Hyun (Lee Byung-hun) works for Korean’s National Intelligence Service. One fateful snowy night, Soo-hyun is busy protecting someone important while his fiancée, Ju-yeon (Oh San-hu), sits stranded in an embankment with a flat tire. She waits patiently for a tow truck to arrive, but a serial killer driving a school bus happens upon her first. Jaal Kyung-Chul (Choi Min-sik) attacks, bludgeons, murders and ultimately dismembers her. All of this is shown in graphic detail.
Following the death of his fiancée, Soo-hyun takes time off from his duties to deal with his grief. He makes one pit stop to acquire a hi-tech tracking device, then heads to the home Ju-yeon’s father, retired police Chief Jang (Chun Kook-haun). The old man gives Soo-hyun the wrap sheet of four criminals suspected of similar crimes. Soo-hyun promptly tracks each man down, finding Ju-yeon’s killer on the third try. The special agent interrupts the rape of another young girl, beats our villain to a bloody pulp and secretly plants the tracking device on him before, well, basically walking away.
Kyung-Chul tries to make a clumsy escape, continuing his reign of terror with each person he encounters. But Soo-hyun arrives to stop the worse of the atrocities, protecting the most innocent. Three different times, Soo-hyun throttles Kyung-Chul only to release him, alive. He continues to wade in the shadows, waiting for the next opportunity to brutally assault the killer; all in hopes of replicating the pain and suffering Ju-yeon endured.
But three is the charm for Kyung-chul. Once Soo-hyun loses the upper-hand on the killer, he never gets it back.
I Saw The Devil is one of the best films I have ever hated. The violence in this film is beyond shocking, beyond graphic; it is obscene. This excruciating film experience is paralleled for me – in all my movie-going experiences - by one other film: The Passion of the Christ. The up-close torture is palpable. Every woman in this film is degraded, defiled or slaughtered (in some cases all three). At a whopping 141 minutes, Devil goes on ten minutes longer than Passion. But it doesn’t need to.
The very genre of revenge film does not dictate the necessity to be gratuitous. I Saw the Devil could easily lose twenty minutes and be better for it. Strip away the excess and focus solely on the heart of the story which in essence is the journey of two whose lives are ironically and tragically parallel: Kyung-Chul as the hunter who becomes the hunted, and Soo-hyun’s decision to become a monster in order to vanquish one.
Lee Byung-hun performance is truly breathtaking. His unassuming presence proves to be deceptively lethal to those he pursues. Rarely has an actor conveyed so much by doing so little. Byung-hun deftly plays every note of Soo-hyun’s agony and wrath as he teeters between the surrender and the destruction of his very soul. With every scene, the man is slowly disappearing into the monster.
Choi Min-sik renders a brilliantly menacing performance. Min-sik is remarkably precise in his depiction of an utterly evil being that possesses only the faintest traces of humanity. A creature of rage and darkness capable of quieting his own madness long enough to contemplate self-preservation. He actually curses his tormentor for his lack of humanity, when he himself has none. Take your pick, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy. This guy makes them look like Mr. Rogers, making Kyung-chul simultaneously chilling and fascinating to watch.
Cinematographer Lee Mogae’s composition is as elegant as his camerawork is ominous. Devil is an expert example of the secret and volatile union between silence and tension. Oh Seung-Chul sculpts the shadow and light of this film to be quite beautiful and deeply foreboding. Similarly, the realism of Kwak Tae-yong’s special effects make-up helps the credibility of the repeated brutality in this story exponentially.
For me the only thing that fails is the script. For example... The same police department that is laser accurate in supplying Chief Jang with a list of potential perpetrators –among which included our killer - in the very first try, is the same agency that is completely – almost clownishly - inept in executing the actual search and capture operation. Not to mention they, the task force searching for the killer, should have access to the same information that Chief Jang does. I found it convenient that they remain three steps behind our hero.
After a number of encounters, Soo-hyan has his catharsis. And yet the movie goes on. I felt cheated for our hero. I felt the script demanded that Soo-hyun be made to pay a price for what he had been driven to do and become by Kyung-chul. His sin was not the act of revenge; Kyung-chul deserved everything he got. Losing himself to the obsession of revenge wasn’t his fault either. His deadly sin was gluttony. Soo-hyan never accepted the fact that Kyung-chul, like Ju-yeun, can only die once. Ironically, I think Director Kim Jee-Woon shares the same fatal flaw as his hero: both simply fail to recognize when enough is enough.
Act three is where is film jumped the shark for me. Logic and physics – and tone - are seemingly thrown out the window for the sake of a slightly higher body count, or perhaps even for a misguided notion of rebalancing the universal scale of good and evil. Devil suddenly regresses into a Quentin Tarantino film, only righting itself in the final five minutes.
I will begrudgingly call I Saw the Devil a shining cinematic achievement. It may be easy for some to forgive the shortcomings of script because of the superior production elements employed in crafting this film. (Kim Jee-woon adapted the script from a screenplay by Park Hoon Jung.) Kim Jee-woon has embraced a story that speaks to him and directed a film that is aesthetically sensational. However, if the opportunity presents itself for me to see the film again, I will bolt in the exact opposite direction; because for me, just like Soo-hyun after his final act of revenge, the conclusion of the journey was simply unsatisfying.
I Saw the Devil is an Official Selection of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. It will be in limited release through Magnet Releasing beginning March 4, 2011.
I Saw The Devil
Director: Kim Jee-Woon
Running Time: 144 minutes
Language: In Korean with English subtitles
MPPA Rating: Not yet rated