The notice hanging at Denver’s Mayan Theatre box office warned: “I Saw the Devil” contains graphic violence throughout the film. Kim Ji-woon’s film promises not just sprinkled moments of visceral horror, but a lifeline of brutality that pulses at every twist.
Korean Rating Boards required Kim Ji-woon to cut some of the choicest moments to avoid a restricted rating. This didn’t faze Korea’s master director of diverse tastes; he made the 7 cuts, knowing full well that in the U.S. the only thing we unnecessarily censor is sex, not violence.
Kim Ji-woon is one of the few directors, in South Korea or the world, who can embrace genres, but carryover his style seamlessly. His last film was the Korean homage to spaghetti westerns, “The Good, the Bad, the Weird.” He mercilessly explored the gangster genre in Korean mob movie “A Bittersweet Life.” This genre-hopping came after his international breakthrough with the horror film, “A Tale of Two Sisters.”
While “I Saw the Devil” is categorically a psychological thriller, its horror elements adorn a film that also feels like a throwback to gritty crime thrillers of the 1970s. The film is born from that visual fascination of vengeance so potent in Korean cinema. This is quite literal in the sense that it was Korean actor Choi Min-sik, of Park Chan-wook’s “Vengeance Trilogy,” that gave the script to Kim.
Choi plays a serial killer who is something like an incarnation of Travis Bickle (“Taxi Driver”) and Max Cady (“Cape Fear”). Making the mistake of killing the pregnant wife of a secret agent, played by Lee Byung-hun (“Joint Security Area,” “The Good, the bad, the Weird”), things get twisted. The hunter becomes the hunted, the torturer is tortured and vengeance blurs the line between good and evil.
Making a reference to 2 Scorsese – De Niro collaborations isn’t happenstance. Both “Cape Fear” and “Taxi Driver” deal with the culture of violence on a deeply personal level. Kim’s “I Saw the Devil,” armed with bone chilling performances from Choi and Lee, captures revenge on a deeply personal level. In its own Korean way, “I Saw the Devil” is the American comparative of Scorsese directing Charles Bronson in “Death Wish,” with much better bad guys.
There’s no use dwelling on comparative references, as Korean cinema is unlike anything in today’s cinematic landscape. Korean filmmakers relish in the artful effects of horror and rarely compromise character for gratuitous acts. Every blood splattering, limb severing, psychological mind-screwing act defines a pivotal revelation in understanding their characters. Yet, in the stylistically unpredictable nature of Korean cinema, sometimes the estrangement of character is just as essential.
In a “Dread Central” interview Kim said, “…the film is really about this man who is taking vengeance on the serial killer…eventually, we focus on his steps and his progression towards becoming a devil himself.” There is a particularly brilliant moment in the film when suddenly the anticipation of horrible things is projected into the confused fear of the serial killer. When Choi’s expression reaches off the screen, his fears become our own. It leaves us in awe of that fine line walked in vengeance, becoming a monster that even a serial killer would fear.
Choi’s serial killer creates a monster and the story draws upon a theme from the greatest tale of revenge in horror. Dr. Frankenstein may have feared the monster he created, but he embraced the confrontation. Will Leitch summed it up in his “I Saw the Devil” Movie Talk Review on Yahoo! Movies: “This movie is about madness and sickness, about two men locked in a vicious, grisly battle, the rest of the world be damned.”