Hangul: 악마를 보았다
Romanisation: Akmareul Boattda
Release Date: August 11th 2010 (South Korea)
Running Time: 141 mins.
Director: Kim Jee-Woon
Writer: Park Hoon-Jung
Starring: Lee Byung-Hun, Choi Min-Sik, Jeon Kuk-Hwan, On San-Ha, Kim Yun-Seo, Cheon Ho-Jin, Choi Moo-Sung. Kim In-Seo, Jo Duk-Je,
I Saw the Devil came out in the same year as The Man from Nowhere. Both feature protagonists with special-forces backgrounds clashing with evil criminals, killing many people in quests for revenge. Imagine James Bond (the Daniel Craig version) chasing Hannibal Lecter. So, hardly an original idea but then the director has a knack for bringing a refreshing spin on things. Here he bolts on a twisted revenge narrative powered by two great physical performances.
It is a dark snow-choked night and a woman named Ju-Yeon (Oh San-Ha) is stuck in her car has which has broken down on a lonely road just outside Seoul. She is talking to her fiancée Soo-Hyun (Lee Byung-Hun) on her mobile phone. He is an agent for the National Intelligence Agency and is working but wants to stay on the phone until a tow-truck appears. Their conversation is interrupted when a stranger named Kyung-Chul (Choi Min-Sik) pulls up in his yellow van and offers to help but Ju-Yeon is wary and Soo-Hyun advises her to stay in the car. Ju-Yeon tells Kyung-Chul she will wait for the tow-truck. He reluctantly disappears. Before he attacks Ju-Yeon. A few days later Ju-Yeon’s mutilated body is found in a river. Soo-Hyun is devastated and feels guilty. At the funeral Soo-Hyun says, “Forgive me Ju-Yeon. I promise you this, I will make him pay.” This sparks in motion a brutal game of revenge as Soo-Hyun stalks Kyung-Chul but things soon spiral out of control.
Kim Jee-Woon brings his genre tweaking skills and high gloss attitude to everything he films. Here he turns the serial killer genre on its head by questioning notions of revenge and the psychological toll taken on those who are both pursued and pursuer. Like the best serial killer films, it feels less like an elaborate game (The Silence of the Lambs) and more like a questioning of how deep emotions and environmental factors affect us (Cure: The Power of Suggestion, Angel Dust). How casual misogyny, economic disenfranchisement and the heavy atmosphere of violence warps people.
I Saw the Devil becomes disturbing and exciting because of the emotions involved and the evolving characters. Watching the merciless and brutal game of catch and release becomes gruelling as the hatred and pain both men feel and inflict dehumanises them and questions the audience’s love of such movie narratives.
The film sets things up conventionally enough with a genuinely upsetting pre-title brutal murder of the angelic looking Ju-Yeon shot with nervy POV’s, the audience hearing knives being sharpened off-screen and seeing Kyung-Chul shot from low angles learns to fear him. His actions and demeanour are genuinely horrific, the blood and gore spilling forth in a gout of hatred and anger.
Despite the horrors involved in the first murder when Soo-Hyun gets started on his road to revenge I found his actions amusing. He plays a righteous crusader beating the stuffing out of criminals as he tries to track the murderer of ‘his girl’. We see him burst in on one seedy low-life after another in a number of short sharp sequences, blitzing their hovels cluttered with porn and other junk or catching them at work and literally busting balls to get the information he wants. This in turn causes criminals to turn themselves in to the police to get away from him.
His methods are so extreme I laughed but the film is too smart to run along these lines for long and it soon becomes uncomfortable watching the action as it becomes ever more extreme and parallels are drawn between pursued and pursuer. Soo-Hyun, by taking the traditionally ultra-masculine route of physical revenge, enters a morally grey area that hurts him and those closest to him. We find ourselves cheering for a man who is becoming little different from those he chases. Is he actually enjoying getting revenge? Should we be enjoying it too?
It is all brought home when a murderer observes, “He’s our kind. He enjoys the excitement of going out on the hunt.”
Watching this K-horror after the Whispering Corridor series the physical violence is noticeable. While the girls in the Korean horror fought their problems with intelligence and empathy (and a lot of running around), the men in this film occupy a particularly male plane of existence as the only emotions on display are hatred, anger and despair and they physically lash out at the world, the deepest dialogue passed between Soo-Hyun and Kung-Chul is through violence. It is explicit and painful. At points I had my fist in my mouth and was wincing at some of the torture and violence that transpired.
Some might see the treatment of the female characters as misogynistic but it challenges the casual misogyny of the audience by presenting us with vile characters and situations where innocent people are hurt and degraded. A case of the director having his cake and eating it? Sure but it worked.
Like Bedevilled, I grew aware of the casual violence aimed at women and got the sense of what it is to feel vulnerable and have to constantly look over your shoulder. Indeed I came to feel that no woman in the film, regardless of age or position, was safe. Quite the experience to live in fear. Life can never be considered normal. Not that the violence inflicted upon the male characters was easy to watch but this film was genuinely disturbing when I became enmeshed in the voyeuristic POV shots in the many instances when Kyung-Chul was loose which leads me on to the performances.
Choi Min-Sik gives a ferocious performance as an unredeemable monster. He looks like an ordinary guy, putting on weight and sagging about the face. The type of person you and I would walk past without a second thought but he is a man with a profoundly disturbed world-view. Any form of humanity is lost on him. He plays Kyung-Chul as bi-polar, swinging between a meandering doziness to hyper-aggression as best exemplified in a scene where he turns on two potential attackers and knifes them to death in a frenzy. His sheer animal aggression is brutal and you can see that he is a threat to Soo-Hyun. Even when he is tortured and suffers he never gains sympathy, he inspires loathing and fear. It is a complete contrast to his performance in The Quiet Family where he was charming as a moping lovelorn uncle. More disturbingly, the film does not give him some trite back-story explaining his ways. He may come from a poor background. That in itself is not justification or reason enough but leaves open the possibility that there are more like him out there like his son, who shows his own form of anger.
Lee Byung-Hun is incredibly charismatic as Soo-Hyun. In A Bittersweet Life he gave an ice-cool performance that was all about surface and the dreams of disruption in character, here he gives an intense letting love, hatred, sweat, tears and ultra-cool fights. He carries us through the events with his athleticism and good looks which make him a action hero and he engages in some great action sequences where you feel like he could clean up South Korea single-handedly. We are willing to let this example of movie heroism, ignoring society, family and logic to sate his appetite for destruction, do such things in the name of justice but his eventual transformation into a burnt-out husk is upsetting to view and be then, the film has made its point. Revenge is something that carries a heavy price.
I Saw the Devil is long but it never feels like it as the narrative surges by like a fierce torrent of filthy water, dousing the audience in nastiness, very stylishly shot nastiness, as a gripping tale of revenge plays out in a linear plot which is like a clockwork puzzle designed to trigger surprises which make the film bounce in a new direction.
I had no idea where this was going. It is totally unpredictable and all the more enjoyable for it. Seeing two great actors, one playing an utterly diabolical monster, the other a government trained professional pushed over the edge duelling with each other is gripping stuff. There are jump-scares but what really made me feel sick and anxious was the oppressive atmosphere of violence. There was no triumphant feeling at the end of the film. I was aware of being gripped by sadness at all of the hatred and wasted life and so was Soo-Hyun. While a Hollywood film might settle for some grand-guignol for its serial killer thrillers, Kim Jee-Woon provides a pretty devastating film which, despite its prettiness, offers little comfort. People are still dead, lives have been ruined and there are more psychopaths in the making.