I Saw the Devil
2010, NR, 142 min. Directed by Kim Jee-woon. Starring Lee Byung-hun, Choi Min-sik, Chun Kook-haun, Chun Ho-jin, Oh San-ha, Kim Yoon-seo, Choi Moo-seong, Kim In-seo.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., March 25, 2011
When a kid finds a severed human ear during one of the opening sequences of I Saw the Devil, you might mistake it for an homage to the comparatively placid world of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet or the dark pop poetry of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. But, no, it’s just part of our stark introduction to the amoral serial killer Kyung-chul (Choi, who is best known stateside as the star of Oldboy). Kim’s South Korean revenge drama is a nasty piece of work, yet it’s executed with superlative style and wit. Grisly and graphic, I Saw the Devil’s extreme violence is put in the service of a morality tale that will reward those who are unflinching about such images – some of which are supremely inventive. That unearthed ear belonged to the fiancée of Soo-hyun (Lee), an elite cop who stoically receives the news and then takes a two-week vacation to track and torment the murderer. Once Soo-hyun finds Kyung-chul, he all but kills the misogynistic serial killer, then plants a high-tech GPS device in his intestines, and begins an elaborate game of catch and release. Each time he finds the killer in the act, Soo-hyun leaves him a little worse off yet still able to limp off to his next female victim or seek solace with his cannibal friends, whose presence in the film makes the viewer ponder degrees of evil. This line of thought comes in handy as we watch Soo-hyun grow as obsessive and monstrous as his quarry, and as calculating and inured to hideous violence and retributive satisfaction. Since we learn who the killer is during the film’s opening moments, I Saw the Devil derives its primary suspense from our observation of Soo-hyun growing even more twisted and evil than his prey. As pointed out in the interview with the director elsewhere in this issue, the Kim seems to be working his way through the litany of film genres, most notably with the melodrama of A Tale of Two Sisters and his Eastern take on spaghetti Westerns The Good, the Bad and the Weird. Particularly with Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy (of which Oldboy is the centerpiece), South Korea has earned a reputation for its elaborate and stylized revenge dramas, so it makes sense that Kim was drawn to this genre story. Although the sequences grow somewhat repetitive in spite of their vicious escalation, and some of the details challenge believability, I Saw the Devil is a spectacle of substantial merit. “Revenge is for movies,” Soo-hyun’s would-be sister-in-law tells him. If only she knew the half of it. (See "The Genre Regenerator," p. 42 for an interview with the director.)