Suspend your disbelief, and you might love “I Saw the Devil” as much as I did. A healthy appreciation for violence will also help immensely. “I Saw the Devil” is a revenge fantasy that lets its dark, gory imagination run wild. It’s divorced from reality, but it’s raw, powerful, and sickly beautiful. It’s not prose, it’s poetry. Written in blood.
In movie pitch terms, you could call it “Silence of the Lambs” meets “No Country For Old Men” meets “Oldboy” meets “Hostel,” with some martial arts thrown in. Secret agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee) is busy at work when his wife gets a flat tire and is murdered by serial killer Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi). The police have four potential suspects. Soo-hyeon decides to take a vacation from work and get revenge, punishing all of the suspects until he hones in on Kyung-chul, his wife’s killer.
The hunt could end roughly an hour into the film, but Soo-hyeon has other plans, mainly an illogical, extended mix of physical and psychological torture. Have you ever gotten upset with a film for the main character not killing the bad guy when he had a chance? Me too, and “I Saw the Devil” might drive you nuts for this very reason, because Soo-hyeon catches his wife’s killer and intentionally lets him go. You see, he wants to relish the revenge and prolong the killer’s suffering for as long as possible. So he hurts Kyung-chul, and when the killer is knocked out, he forces him to ingest a tracking device capsule. Kyung-chul awakes badly hurt, confused, but ultimately relieved. When he goes to prey on his next victim, Soo-hyeon shows up and hurts him some more. Every time he goes to get his kicks, this stranger appears to save the victim and further injure Kyung-chul. It’s a bizarre, insane method of revenge, and it leads to grave problems for our protagonist, but it’s also entertaining as hell. Director Jee-woon Kim is essentially a kid playing with toys, pushing his revenge fantasy beyond the limits, and his film is raw, powerful, and absolutely amazing because of it. If you can accept central ridiculousness of the premise, that is.
Your enjoyment of the film will depend on your tolerance for violence. If you love violent films, you’re in for an orgy. “I Saw the Devil” combines violence typical of torture porn with our protagonist’s efficiency in martial arts. Imagine something like a horror flick mixed with the Bourne movies. It makes for a really cool, unique flavor that I’ve yet to enjoy in any other film. “Kill Bill” brings lots of blood and gore to martial arts. That’s probably the closest example, but it does nothing to describe the violence on display here. “Kill Bill” is cartoon violence and homage; “I Saw the Devil” has a heart that bleeds with its material. Be warned: you will see naked women being tortured, heads being cut off, multiple stabbings, and plenty of blunt objects bashing skulls. And for the most part, the film is unflinching in these depictions. Rarely does the camera cut away, except for in a few instances where it lets you imagine the moment of death.
There is actually a certain beauty to the violence, but the film is beautiful in general. I loved the cinematography, music, the final shot—there is a lot of artistry on display here. I also loved the acting, which says a lot considering I don’t speak Korean, but I don’t need to. The anguish, suffering, and determination is written on Lee’s face. Despite the language barrier, Choi delivers one of the great screen villains of all time, right up there with Javier Bardem in “No Country For Old Men,” or Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight.” Like those characters, he is a force to be reckoned with, and his performance matches those actors’ dedicated intensity.
At 142 minutes, the film is a bit long, but it’s worth it, and there is enough action and violence in general to maintain a healthy pace. If you’re a fan of revenge flicks but shy away from foreign films, you’re doing yourself a disservice. In fact, I would go as far as to say this film could convert you from avoiding subtitles. Of course, you could always wait for the not-yet-planned, but surely-in-the-pipeline Hollywood remake. Because that’s what Hollywood does now. It remakes stuff. Hollywood studios have opted to play it safe these days and let foreign films take risk and achieve greatness.
5 out of 5 stars
“I Saw the Devil” is currently available on Netflix instant play.