It takes a special kind of filmmaker to please both gorehounds and cinema purists. Though unfairly at times, advocates of higher art tend to scoff at movies punctuated by severed limbs and close-ups of skin-cutting and dripping blood. It’s one of the many reasons that many critics are quick to condemn horror films before their opening credits ever roll.
South Korean director Ji-woon Kim’s I Saw The Devil isn’t technically a horror flick; in the spirit of David Fincher, Jee-woon’s brutal character study is more of a midnight-dark psychological thriller. But with some of the rawest violence seen in some time, I Saw The Devil is sick enough to leave the Fangoria in effervescent glee.
Kim is no Eli Roth, though; similar to his past genre victories (A Tale Of Two Sisters, The Good, The Bad, The Weird), Kim treats the butchery as a bonus. He’s more concerned with developing rich characters and telling a powerful story in his own unique way. The result isn’t just a dream come true for violence junkies—it’s also the best serial killer movie to come out since Fincher’s Zodiac, and it'll probably remain just as underrated.
I Saw The Devil Is A Case Of Evil Vs. Good-Turned-Evil
Kim isn’t the only mind behind I Saw The Devil worth saluting; screenwriter Park Hoon Jung's script is a truly brave and impeccably paced knockout. Korean A-lister Lee Byung-hun stars as Soo-hyun, a special agent whose fiancee is savagely murdered on the side of the road. The killer is Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi), a methodical and even-keeled serial killer obsessed with abducting pretty young girls, taking them back to his secret lair, and dismembering their body parts while they’re still alive and screaming in agony. Once Soo-hyun figures out Kyung-chul’s identity, he makes it his mission to exact vengeance, but he’s not interested in jail time or any other form of traditional justice. Soo-hyun instead turns Kyung-chul’s life into a broken record of repeated ass-kicking, torture, and graphic comeuppance. The killer, in effect, becomes the prey.
“I Saw The Devil is the best serial killer movie to come out since David Fincher’s Zodiac.” What’s truly fascinating about I Saw The Devil is how well Jung’s script handles the Kyung-chul character. Despite his abhorrent tendencies, he’s a tough guy to loathe, a personality trait established through spending most of the film in his presence. Choi, a great actor at the top of his game here, is largely to credit. He could’ve degraded the character into a generic madman, the type of one-note slayer whose only concern is to scare all in his path. But that’s what makes I Saw The Devil so fascinating—in a clever reversal of guilt, Kyung-chul seems like the victim, a likeable man being stalked by an absolute psychopath. Of course, that’s not the truth, but Kim and Jung don’t want you to adhere to the facts. I Saw The Devil is a serial killer pic that blurs the line between villain and hero.
Choi’s strong performance is complemented by that of Byung-hun, who’s tasked with keeping Soo-hyun alternately sympathetic and maniacally infatuated with cruelty. He’s also an imposing physical presence, maneuvering through a series of fights and cat-and-mouse chase scenes with authentic stunt-work, which explains why Hollywood tried to utilize, but ultimately wasted, his talents to play Storm Shadow in 2009’s poorly executed G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra.
Squeamish Folks Be Warned: I Saw The Devil Is That Raw And Uncut Goodness
In I Saw The Devil, Byung-hun gets to pull off some ghastly moves: amongst other grotesqueries, he rips a guy’s mouth open with his bare hands, wallops an eyes with a dumbbell, and carves Choi’s Achilles heel with just the right amount of horridness to have a viewer upchuck his or her buttered popcorn.
For virtuoso action, I Saw The Devil is quite generous; two sequences in particular are worth citing in veneration. The first encounter between Soo-hyun and Kyung-chul is a grand slam of a brawl, set inside an enormous greenhouse and brilliantly staged, with easily discernable visuals and raging energy.
The second of Kim’s home-runs takes place inside a cab, in which an injured Kyung-chul rides shotgun, joined by a shady backseat passenger and a jumpy driver. Kim manipulates the respective characters’ motives before the scene erupts in a seemingly edit-free stab-a-thon captured by the director’s spinning camera. It’s hard not to draw comparisons to the widely heralded single-take, one-versus-many hallway fight in Old Boy, which also featured Choi as its lead. The guy’s catalog of badass scenes is pretty superlative at this point.
The year is still young, so it wouldn’t make sense to cast any “Best of 2011” praise upon I Saw The Devil just yet. But let’s just say that Kim’s film is certainly in the running; to take the fawning a step further, I Saw The Devil sets the standard for all genre films being released this year, whether made in Hollywood or shipped over from foreign markets. As an intense drama, it’s an actor’s showcase that’s unpredictable and, most importantly, emotionally potent. And then there’s the horror lover’s viscera scale, on which I Saw The Devil ranks as a must-see. Really, how often can you lump together those two degrees of commendation?
COOLEST EXTRA: "HDNet: A Look At I Saw The Devil" featurette (DVD/Blu-ray)
Buy it now: I Saw The Devil (Unrated)