Nobody—hardcore cinephile or casual passer of time—should throw on the DVD for I Saw The Devil without this warning: this movie is unapologetic – in subject matter as well as execution. The camera rarely looks away, the characters never flinch and the onscreen violence is not for the easily tormented (of stomach or dreams).
Still interested? Good.
Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi, Old Boy) is one scary sumbitch. He rides around in some sort of school van offering lifts or aid to unsuspecting single women stuck in malfunctioning vehicles or awaiting public transport on deserted stretches of road. When he has them where he wants them he beats them senseless, rapes and then murders them. Without mercy. Without ceremony.
Like I said, scary.
Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee, J. S. A.) is a secret agent whose fiancée is murdered by Kyung-chul in the opening minutes of I Saw The Devil, setting him on a collision course with the killer. Since his fiancée’s father is a cop Soo-hyeon receives a list of possible suspects in the murder and goes after each and every one of them.
The first two suspects are hospitalized with grievous injuries and it is clear that this quiet man doesn’t play by the rules of the civilized. Which is great, right? Except…
Kyung-chul isn’t like any motion picture killer we have ever seen before. After his first run-in with Soo-hyeon leaves him with a broken wrist and other assorted injuries the killer attempts to have his way with the nurse of the doctor who patches him up.
Yes, he really is that bad to the bone.
And just when it appears that this is going to become a repetitive game of catch-and-release between the killer and his hunter, the film veers off the conventional path into a dirt road that offers a chilling insight into the possible lives of serial killers – that they might have friends.
I Saw The Devil features powerful performances by the leads, stunning cinematography, and effects work that repeatedly shames Hollywood and French cinema. While the writing does a great job of exploring the deepest darkest areas of this genre, it also features several convenient alignments that allow the narrative to maintain momentum. Not a deal-breaker but it was there so I had to point it out.
That said, I Saw The Devil is one of the more difficult movies I have watched in recent times, but also one of the most rewarding. When I first became aware of this film I had just watched The Chaser which is also a serial killer film. I didn’t think I Saw The Devil would be able to explore new territory within the same space, especially since the two movies seemed so similar in content. I was wrong.
I Saw The Devil is not just a serial killer movie, it is a meditation on the very nature of evil. And revenge. Because nothing changes the fact that Soo-Hyeon’s fiancée is dead. All the damage he does to Kyung-chul will not reverse that truth, or genuinely bring him peace. So what motivates him?
When the end credits started to roll, and for several hours after that, I wondered about the title of the movie. And I am not entirely sure that the devil the title refers to, is the killer.
I cannot say for the world at large but I definitely believe that filmmakers, and especially screenwriters, should watch I Saw The Devil, and then dissect it. Because there is a lot to learn from this film.