“Revenge is a dish best served cold.”
-old Klingon proverb
“Send a maniac to catch a maniac…”
-Sylvester Stallone from “Demolition Man”
“We could go about seeking revenge, and if we’re smart we’re not ever gonna get caught. But that makes us like terrorists, making up our own rules. What’s the difference?”
“What’s the difference?”
“We’re the good guys.”
-conversation between Detectives Bayliss and Pembleton from “Homicide: Life On The Street”
Many people will be quick to criticize “I Saw The Devil” as being excessively and unnecessarily violent. Indeed, it is an unrelentingly grim cinematic experience as we watch a serial killer chop beautiful young women into little pieces and the boyfriend of one of those victims getting his revenge on the evil bastard. I’m guessing there will be a number of critics as well who will think that Americans would never come up with such graphic depictions, but we know otherwise (the “Saw” franchise anyone?).
But unlike other horror movies we see today, “I Saw The Devil” does not exist simply to gross us out or make us uncomfortable as humanly possible. There’s a real story here amidst all the carnage about the hollowness of wanting revenge, and of what it does to those who seek and get it. It goes down the heavily traveled road of serial killer and retribution movies, and each genre feels like it has been completely burned out. But Jee-woon Kim, the same man who directed “The Good, The Bad, The Weird,” has created a motion picture that finds brutally fresh new twists that has pinned in our seats for the entire two and a half hour running time. Yup, “I Saw The Devil” is that unrelenting.
The movie starts off with the beautiful Joo-yeon (Oh San-Ha) talking with her fiancé Soo-Hyun (Lee Byung-hun) while she is waiting in her car on a lonely snowy road in the middle of nowhere. Before you know it, a man by the name of Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) viciously attacks and knocks her out. Back at his grungy workshop, she begs for her life and says that she is pregnant. Kyung-chul’s face is an enigma in that you’re not sure what he is feeling at the moment. You’d want to think he feels some sort of empathy, but for someone like him, that is a luxury they cannot afford. Either way, it doesn’t stop him from chopping away at her with a rusty hatchet.
Upon finding her severed head in a nearby lake, Soo-Hyun, a special agent, vows to make her attacker feel the same kind of pain he made his victims feel. From there, the movie turns into a cat and mouse game, and we begin to wonder which of them is the more mentally deranged. Unlike most American revenge thrillers where we can tell the hero apart from the bad guy, we’re lucky if we can find any good guys here.
The first thing I want to mention in regards to “I Saw The Devil” is just how beautiful the cinematography is. It’s kind of a cross between the vivid colors that helped make the best Dario Argento movies like “Suspiria,” and the immensely cold and snowy landscape of “Let The Right One In.” I’m guessing Jee-woon Kim was inspired by the filmmakers of both (Argento more prominently), and even he succeeds in finding a beauty in all the hideous carnage going on. The image of the snow proves to be a metaphor for how cold the soul of the two main characters (the fiancé and the serial killer) are or have become.
In terms of acting, Choi Min-sik’s stands above everyone else’s in this movie. Choi is best known for his amazingly unforgettable performance in Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy.” Throughout the movie’s running time, he never tries to hide the fact that the man he’s playing is a pure sociopath. A manipulator of emotions that he is unable to fully experience in his own twisted state, it’s a brave performance that doesn’t hold back anything. Not once does Choi try to make Kyung-Chul a man with any redeemable qualities. We never have a clear idea of what his motive is in perpetrating these killings, so we can only guess. By the time we think we know, we discover that there is not much left to the man except the utterly repellent pleasures of life.
Lee Byung-hun also deserves points for bravery as the now fiancé-less Soo-Hyun. This is the character we most easily identify with here, but he soon becomes the film’s most tragic one. We can’t really blame him for wanting vengeance and to torture this killer without a conscience. But as the movie goes on, we see that it is destroying whatever is left of his damaged soul. Lee makes us care about this man even as he becomes almost every bit as depraved as Kyung-Chul. Even when he slices off a key part of Kyung’s body, we still follow him even if we are increasingly repelled by what he does. His conscience comes out in the form of Soo-Hyun’s family, but their sane take on the situation is not enough to pull him back from the abyss of hatred.
Make no mistake, this is a seriously violent movie. It feels like forever since I’ve seen that much blood literally spurting out of the human body. Also, I can’t remember the last time a guillotine was used so predominantly. All the same, like any good Dario Argento movie, it’s rendered in the most beautiful cinematic fashion. This is not your average “Friday The 13th” or “Saw” sequel where things are thrown together the cheapest way possible. The colors are vividly realized, making it all ever so cinematically gruesome. The acts committed are horrendous and brutal, and we abhor what we see, but there is unmistakable beauty to it all.
But once you get past the seemingly unending carnage, you’ll see that there is a strong story here of two men who in the end pretty much deserve one another. “I Saw The Devil” is a strong character piece featuring people who in any other movie would be at opposite ends of the law abiding spectrum, but who have more in common with each other than they ever intended to. It’s also a requiem to much of what’s good in the world, and how effortlessly it can be snuffed out. While a part of us wants to see this sick bastard suffer horribly, there’s another part that slowly reminds us how sick we are in wanting that. It’s also full of twists and turns that you don’t see coming and which never feel convoluted. The movie is full of surprises, many of them incredibly grim ones. If you thought “Harry Brown” was dark, this will redefine the term for you.
“I Saw The Devil” has the fortunate honor of being the first great movie that I have seen in 2011. As much as I hate to point out the obvious, this is not a film for everybody. But for those willing to travel down its pitch black path, you will get an experience that is not exactly enjoyable, but far from ordinary.
Now look, I’m not saying that it’s bad to like revenge/retribution movies. Lord knows we them every once in awhile to exercise the parts of our psyche that are hopefully ruled over by common sense. But every once in awhile, we need a reminder of how wrong it can be to get what you wish for. Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible” was one of the harshest examples of that, and “I Saw The Devil” is not all that far behind it.
**** out of ****