I Saw the Devil (Angmareul boatda) 악마를 보았다 (2010) (141 minutes)
Directed by Jee-woon Kim.
Written by Jee-woon Kim and Hoon-jung Park.
Starring Byung-hun Lee, Min-sik Choi and In-seo Kim.
The South Korean film industry has enjoyed a twenty year renaissance especially in the thriller/horror/gore genres. The release of Oldboy (2003) put South Korean cinema back on the map, after seeing its once glorious traditions wane for many years. I Saw the Devil is the penultimate representative of this new style of Korean cinema, with acting, cinematography, direction and production values equal to any of the world’s leading movie centers.
I Saw the Devil can be viewed two ways. First, as a superior cat and mouse detective/criminal story, with plenty of plot twists and suspense. The other is a continuation of the rape/revenge genre, first started by Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring and followed by the more modern exploitation films such as The Last House on the Left (which was inspired by Bergman’s film), I Spit on Your Grave and Chaos.
The film pulls off an incredible feat; I Saw the Devil is a very bleak, dark and disturbing cinematic experience. Its message, eloquently voiced, is that in life none of us are ever really safe and revenge does not offer salvation, but damnation. Beyond that, the movie is brutally violent yet the director, Kim Jee-Woon films it in such a manner that is more fascinating than revolting.
I Saw the Devil has so many brilliantly staged set-pieces it’s difficult to single out one as being the best. The beginning sets the tone for the remainder of the story. A young woman Jang Yu-yun (Oh Han-sa) has a flat on a lonely stretch of road, one snowy night. A stranger comes by and offers to help. Jang Kyung-Chul (Choi Min-sik) is both a serial rapist and serial killer. He assaults and murders the terrified woman, then dismembers her body. The scene is almost unbearably sad as she begs for her life telling the killer she is engaged to be married. The killer shows no sign of humanity and is even amused by her pleading.
Eventually, parts of the missing woman’s body are found and she is identified. As it turns out, her father is the commander of a police squad (Jeon Gook-hwan), and her fiancé Kim Soon-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), is a special agent in the National Intelligence Service. He launches an independent investigation, finally locating the killer’s apartment. He finds numerous “trophies” of Jang’s crimes and his fiancé’s engagement ring.
Our psychopath’s day job is driving a school bus, so Kim plants a tracking device on the vehicle. As luck would have it, just as Jang is going to rape his last passenger, a young school girl, Kim intervenes and beats him senseless. He then inserts the tracking device inside Jang, making it possible to follow him and listen to his conversations.
The movie is starting to set up a parallel yet diametrically opposed manifestation of the two main characters. Both men have drifted over the boundaries of the law and have resorted to violence to satisfy their various needs. For Kim, it is his unquenchable thirst for revenge and for Jang it is his psychotic need to abuse and kill.
After the butt-whipping Kim lays on Jang, the latter checks into a hospital, completely unaware as to who assaulted him. After an emergency room nurse takes care of his wounds, he attempts to rape her, Kim shows up and slashes one of Jang’s Achilles tendons, then lets him flee.
Jang seeks shelter with one of his pals, a cannibalistic killer. Tae Joo (Choi Moo-Sung) kidnaps young women, butchers them and throws the scraps to the vicious dogs protecting his foreboding old house. His meek girlfriend is also part of the festivities. Even though Jang insults Tae Joo over his predilection for human flesh, Tae discerns that the person chasing Jang must have a connection to one of his victims.
The next sequence is a mind blowing exercise in film-making as it seamlessly combines horror, suspense, gore, and action to make a memorable experience. The scene is also completely realistic as there are no special effects evident and the action unfolds logically without relying upon contrived situations.
Kim ends up sending all three psychos to the hospital. In an isolated ward, Kim and a subordinate talk about his plan for revenge, unaware Jang can hear them. This is the one flaw of the film, a twist that is illogical- why would a seasoned espionage agent discuss such sensitive material a few feet away from his quarry. However, the scene is necessary to move the narrative forward.
Kim decides to continue the cat and mouse game by releasing Jang and thus begins the very unsettling, yet inevitable denouement of the film. Bleak, nihilistic and yet satisfying, the audience shouldn’t feel cheated at all.
I Saw the Devil, among its many virtues, is a beautifully filmed movie. From the snowy night scenes, to the interior shots of hospitals, drug stores and the house of horrors, every frame works. The movie also has a daylight car chase sequence which is spectacular.
Some critics have claimed the film is misogynistic and preoccupied with violence. I believe director Kim Jee-woon was careful to distance his POV from the sadistic murderers depicted in the movie. The rapes are never shown in graphic detail. Jang is obviously a sick degenerate and although resourceful, his triumphs are never celebrated. As for the violence, well the story is about serial killers and revenge. It’s not a Disney cartoon.
Although I Saw the Devil is a rather long film, the pace makes it seem to fly by. The acting is excellent by the key characters, especially by the two protagonists.
Overall, I Saw the Devil is a pessimistic look at man and his inability, despite intelligence, culture and logic, to overcome the dark forces within. It also accurately depicts how despite thousands of years of science, medicine and general enlightenment, human beings have an unshakeable desire to inflict pain upon others. However the film’s beauty and superior art makes the message easier to swallow.