I Saw the Devil

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
    I Saw the Devil
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

A violent serial killer is on the loose, stalking those who cannot protect themselves and brutally dispatching them. One victim, though, is the pregnant fiancée of a high ranking special agent who sets off on his own path of revenge against the killer. Revenge, it is said, is a dish best served cold and the morality of the police officer and his vengeance come into question in “I Saw the Devil.”

Censored on its initial release in Korea – for extreme and graphic violence – director/writer Kim Jee-Woon takes it to the edge with his grizzly tale of serial murder and revenge. Choi Min-Sik (“Old Boy”) is the heinous killer Kyung-Chul, a man of no conscience to whom his victims are there for his own bloody entertainment. But, he picked the wrong vic when he randomly selects a cop’s wife-to-be, beginning a cat-and-mouse chase as Kim Soo-Hyeon (Lee Byung-Hun) tails the killer and thwarts every attempt at mayhem of innocent people. As Soo-Hyeon tracks his adversary and saves the femme victims, he inflicts increasing punishment on Kyung-Chul, thinking that he will eventually break the psychopath. He will be proven very wrong.

Kim Jee-Woon tells the straightforward tale of a man chasing a monster and is in danger of becoming a monster himself. This simple premise is punctuated by the graphic slaughter of the serial killer’s prey. I am talking graphic here, so much so that I, a veteran of violent films, had to turn away from the screen more than once. I’m not sure of the point of such extreme and bloody violence except, maybe, to push the buttons of South Korean censors. Less is more and less vivid gore would have made “I Saw the Devil” a better revenge film. The main characters, while two-dimensional, are intense and interesting to watch, especially Choi Min-Sink as the deranged, blood-lusting killer.

“I Saw the Devil” should appeal to the fans of the genre. Those that like films such as “Saw” will find this torture-porn to their liking. The sometimes convoluted plot has large holes in it, too. Fill those holes and tone down the violence and this could have been a terrific horror flick. I grudgingly give it a B-.

When Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee) receives a call from his fiance telling him she's broken down on a remote road, he tells her to stay in her car, but that does not protect her from Kyung-Chul ("Oldboy's" Min-sik Choi), the serial killer who's found her stranded.  Distraught, Soo-hyeon targets Kyung-Chul with a nasty revenge that escalates until he himself becomes the monster in "I Saw the Devil."

Director Jee-woon Kim gave us the masterful "A Tale of Two Sisters," then a gleefully wacked spin on the spaghetti Western with "The Good, the Bad, the Weird."  Now he goes just as over the top with his take on films like "Manhunter," "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Seven," but while his film works as cult horror, this stylishly uber-violent battering ram of a movie is thematically stale and sloppy in its details.   Still, the film is edgy and tense and against all odds Min-sik Choi finds humor in his dark psychology.

At first, we don't understand what Soo-hyeon's game is.  When he first tracks down Kyung-Chul, he averts the death of a school girl, beating the killer visciously.  But he lets him go. This begins a series of catch and release and it becomes clear that Soo-hyeon is trying a Pavlov's dog experiement, using extreme aversion therapy to wear Kyung-Chul down.  But Kyung-Chul doesn't go down easily, almost relishing the challenge.  He even joins forces with another serial killer, a cannibal whom Soo-hyeon must also face.

But Soo-hyeon's last plotted act  just doesn't feel right - ironic perhaps, but uncharacteristic. Where Kyung-Chul's actions directly seared Soo-hyeon's emotions, Soo-hyeon's ultimate sadomasochistic retaliation impacts innocents.    There are also jarring improbabilities like the chained victim who manages to soundlessly escape as her tormentor fiddles with a dead radio or the way Kyung-Chul mysteriously appears within an office after having left it.

"I Saw the Devil" is beautifully shot, composed and scored, but its psychology is on shaky ground.  That said, Jee-woon Kim may have gotten what he wanted with a 'hero' we can't invest in and a 'villain' who entertains.

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