At a screening that I recently attended, I got to know a woman who works as a festival programmer. Part of her job involves watching and reviewing several films a day. How great is that? Be that as it may, she’s not a fan of the horror genre. I am currently writing a horror screenplay. She recommended I check out the film I Saw The Devil, because she considers it one of the rare horror movies that exemplifies good filmmaking. I just watched it, and I agree.
The film starts with serial killer Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik of Old Boy fame) and his POV as he drives down a snowy countryside road. I’m not a fan of drawn-out opening credits so I was a bit impatient from the get-go, but it definitely added to the sense of dread when you finally see his first victim sitting in her car.
What’s chilling about Kyung-chul is that he doesn’t seem to derive much pleasure from killing. When Joo-yun begs him not to kill her, his response is simple. “Why not?” he asks, genuinely not caring.
And it certainly begs the disturbing question of “why not”. Religious arguments aside, what makes any human being important enough to deserve mercy? In the end, the killer ends up butchering Joo-yun as if she were an animal. He doesn’t spare her any pain nor does he seem particularly excited by his brutal actions. After his sexual “needs”are met , the female body to him is simply a pornographic vessel that should be disposed of when it can no longer satisfy.
Joo-yun happens to be the fiance of NIS special agent Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun). The discovery of her brutal murder unhinges him and he goes off on a deadly hunt to track her killer. Along the way, he narrows down suspects by attacking other serial rapists. Watching him hammer a perv’s balls into a bloody pulp helped balance out the numerous scenes of violence against women.
Throughout the carnage, there are surprising nuggets of dark comedy. For example, Joo-yun’s sister tries to stop Soo-hyun’s vigilante rampage by telling him “revenge is for movies.” We also get to see Soo-hyun confront a cannibalistic creep who makes his girlfriend prepare human meat for dinner every night. Finally, If you hate shit, then be prepared for the most vomit-worthy bathroom scene ever. I understand that generally Asians are less uptight about discussing bowel movements but ugh. ugh. and more ugh.
As the protaganist, Lee Byun-hun does an amazing job of portraying his grief and rage with minimal dialogue. I did notice that to show how shocked he was at the news of his fiance’s death, he covered his mouth with his hand, which is the same move that he uses in Iris when he reacts to Seung-Hee getting tortured. Unlike Wong Bin’s soulful performance in The Man From Nowhere, Byung-hun’s eyes tend to vacillate between vacousness and sarcasm. He does excel at his physical scenes and does an amazing job during the final moment, which is essentially a long shot of him on a crying jag. I don’t normally re-watch scenes, but I had to watch the ending again because it was so well done.
When Soo-hyun’s mission is finally complete, we’re left with the unsettling realization that revenge isn’t bittersweet. It’s just bitter.
I Saw the Devil
Pros: Strong acting, plenty of twists and turns in the storyline to keep you guessing, tense and beautifully grotesque action sequences. This is a soulful movie about the terrifying miscreants who lack souls.
Cons: There is an overwhelming amount of onscreen violence. Torture porn would be the term for it. This could be a ‘con’ for some people, but I believe the strong plot line and emotional journey justifies the extreme violence which is portrayed.