Movie Review: I SAW THE DEVIL (2011)

Starring: Byun-hun Lee, Min-sik Choi, Gook-hwan Jeon

Written by: Hoon-jung Park

Directed by: Jee-woon Kim

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Revenge is a strong emotion that all of us feel at one point or another; someone wrongs us in some way and we feel that in order to make things equal we need to do something back to them, something that hurts them in the same way they’ve hurt us. Such a strong feeling and the actions that result from it make for a good movie, and because of this, the movie industry has churned out copious amounts of entertainment that revolve around the act of revenge. Movies like Death Wish, Straw Dogs (whose remake is scheduled to be released this fall), and even 2009’s Inglourious Basterds all revolve around what a person will do in order to avenge the wrongs of their life. And while each of those along with the many others have their merits, they have officially been trumped. I Saw the Devil, the 2010 Korean film from famed director Jee-woon Kim, is brutal, violent, and heartbreaking. It shows revenge from all its angles, from the emotional impact it has to the unforseen consequences it yields, and by the end of it you just want to sit there as the credits roll and just think about what just happened. There have been great revenge movies in the past, but I Saw the Devil is the new king of the genre.

I Saw the Devil stars Byun-hun Lee as Kim Soo-hyeon, secret agent whose fiancee is murdered in brutal fashion by a serial killer. Taking two weeks leave, he sets out to find the culprit and after coming up short twice he finally finds his man: Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi), a man who spends his days driving schoolgirls home and his nights brutally raping and murdering innocent victims. Now normally when the good guy finally finds the villain he’s looking for, that signals the end, but this is a different beast altogether. Kim Soo-hyeon beats Kyung-chul within an inch of his life and forces him to swallow a GPS tracker while unconscious, allowing the secret agent to track his every move. When Kyung-chul awakens, he thinks that the pain is finally over but he soon realizes it’s just begun.

From the outset, I Saw the Devil pulls absolutely no punches, showing Kyung-chul’s attack on Kim’s fiancee and the subsequent murder afterwards, which yields a secret that even her husband to be isn’t aware of. It’s bloody and raw, but it’s realistic. Almost too realistic if you’re faint at heart. And for the rest of the movie, it follows the same trajectory; when there’s blood, there’s buckets of it but never in a cartoonish way; Jee-woon Kim does not want you to laugh at the gore, he wants you to be affected by it and it’s successful. You feel every blow, every hit, every rip, every tear, wincing along as time goes by.

And unlike some movies where the violence is really all it has going for it, I Saw the Devil has so much more. Screenwriter Hoon-jung Park has crafted a cat and mouse story that feels unlike any other; this time the cat knows the mouse’s every movement. He also fills the story with empathetic side characters and some humorous moments, but most intriguing of all are the characters that much like Kyung-chul are serial killers themselves. A particular scene involving a cab Kyung-chul takes into the city after another beating from Kim is one of the coolest scenes committed to celluloid in the past decade. Initially, it looks like Kyung-chul is out to murder whoever is driving and their passenger but as it turns out, they may have the same thoughts for him. What follows is a fight scene among the three while the car is in motion and it’s brutal, beautiful, and gets your heart racing all at once. Don’t mistake I Saw the Devil as having multiple subplots, this is really Kim Vs. Hyung-chul but the world is fleshed out with some cool and interesting characters regardless. Hats off to Hoon-jung Park.

Trying to remark on the acting in a movie done in another language is hard to do most of the time, but in I Saw the Devil it’s plainly obvious that everyone is bringing their A-game. Byun-hun Lee is excellent as Kim Soo-hyeon and plays him well enough to be both sympathetic and at times even disturbing. But even when he’s crossing the line, it’s all perfectly understandable and you still feel for him and want him to dispatch this horrible serial killer from this earth. While he is a great anchor to the story, I Saw the Devil belongs to Min-sik Choi and his serial killer Hyung-chul. No stranger to revenge films, he is best known for playing Dae-su Oh in the 2003 classic Oldboy, he gets to play the villain on this go round and it’s another brilliant performance to add to his filmography. Simply put, he’s scary as hell in the role and totally believable as a serial killer, making every action and word he says send chills up one’s spine. The audience will root against him while watching this, but make no mistake he is the best part of the movie, hands down. A performance that needs to be seen to be believed.

After watching I Saw the Devil, it’s hard to even contemplate another revenge movie coming close to its quality. Top to bottom, everything goes right; it’s filled with twists and turns, the action is brutal and unforgiving, and the performances are some of the best to be seen in any recent movie from any country. The chemistry between the two leads is off the charts, and adds to the tension of the story. Its bloody imagery and uncomfortable subject matter may turn some potential viewers off but for anyone who gives I Saw the Devil the time of day, it’ll be a movie they’ll never forget. This reviewer sure won’t.

Grade: A-

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