I Saw the Devil

Year: 2010
Production Co: Finest
Director: Jee-woon Kim
Writer: Jee-woon Kim
Cast: Min-sik Choi, Byung-Hun Lee

Is this a successful blending of the tragic drama that ensues when a serial killer terrorises his victims and a revenge thriller, or isn't it?

You can see how some viewers would dislike it. Revenge thrillers as we know them from Hollywood's history are about feeling good – at least satisfied – and they usually don't show such upsetting or confronting violence (including sexual violence) so face-on as this film does, glossing over the details of the crime being avenged and with more effort put towards choreographing the classic cat-and-mouse dance.

Any movie that does show the blood, terror and tragedy of rape or murder usually finds itself in the territory of a drama about healing, where the awful effects of violence on victims is the point of the story rather than any Hollywood-inspired roller coaster where bad people get what's coming to them.

I'd argue director and co-writer Park Hoon-jung does blend the two successfully. The dual tones are confidently enmeshed in the story because the movie doesn't really stop to deal with the personal cost of violence like a normal drama would, even though it isn't shy about depicting the awful acts that lead to it.

If you don't like the movie, it's probably because of tension between satisfaction of seeing the good guy take revenge on the bad guy and discomfort at seeing what the bad guy does to people without breaking a sweat. On top of that, Park does edge more into the personal cost revenge takes on the hero than any kind of pat 'I got even' ending.

Min-sik Choi, the antihero from Oldboy , is cool as ice psychopath killer Kyung-chul, who spends his time cruising around looking for female victims to drag back to his dank, blood-soaked basement.

His current victim is Joo-yun, who has a flat tyre by the side of the road one snowy night. After telling her fiance, secret service agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-Hun Lee), on the phone that the road service is on the way, Kyung-chul passes by, offering to fix her tyre.

Kyung-chul soon has Joo-yun in his killing room and makes short work of her, scattering her body parts in the woods. When a young boy subsequently finds a disembodied ear the manhunt is on, and the chief of police (also Joo-yun's father), has to find her body and tell Soo-hyun his fiance has been brutally murdered.

As Kyung-chul goes through another victim he's snatched from a lonely bus stop, then attempts to do the same with a teenage girl after posing as a school bus driver, he's unaware that Soo-hyun is putting his very particular set of skills to use to track him down. He's convinced his father in law to be to furnish him with a list of suspects in the killings, and he proceeds to track down and assess each one until he zeroes in on Kyung-chul.

But he's not going to just cuff the killer and bring him in. In an increasingly bloody and garish series of set pieces he instead captures Kyung-chul and plants a tracking device inside his body just so he can let him go, track him down and beat and torture him all over again.

But Soo-hyun doesn't count on the collateral damage – maybe he doesn't care about it – until it leads right back to his own door with Joo-yun's father and sister put at risk. As the film is at pains to portray, when Soo-hyun is walking down the road away from the house where he's exacting his final, torture porn-like revenge on Kyung-chul (while listening to it all on the transmitter), he's alternating between laughing hysterically and crying, his quest having rendered him less than human just like his quarry was.

All of which means Park seems less interested in giving you the longed-for revenge than in just making you feel mucky. Scenes and set pieces like Kyung-chul's friend – who happens to be a cannibal and keeps his own female victims locked up for food – or an assault on a poor pharmacist are more like the kind of thing you'd see in an old grindhouse flick than a slick revenge thriller.

Nor does the writer/director seem to particularly revel in how rebellious he's being in showing you such grime – every scene and event is portrayed in straightforward, almost workmanlike fashion. It might say more about Korean audiences than it does about the way a Western viewer will respond to it all. Maybe there's something about their culture that makes this corner of their industry much more permissible than what we're used to from Hollywood.

Either way it really tests your mettle for material you don't normally see in a revenge potboiler.

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