I Saw the Devil (2010)
“Evil lives inside”
Director: Kim Jee-woon
Cast: Byung-hun Lee, Min-sik Choi, In-seo Kim
Synopsis: When his pregnant fiancee becomes the latest victim of a serial killer, a secret agent blurs the line between good and evil in his pursuit of revenge.
Most people will recognise the actor Min-Sik Choi as the drunken buffoon from Oldboy who emerges from a lengthy imprisonment a lean and fearsome anti-hero bent on revenge. He has a puffy, weathered face; it’s a face that looks lived in and his natural expression suggests a sadness behind the eyes. In I Saw the Devil he plays the subject of revenge instead of its instrument, but director Jee-woon Kim doesn’t ask us to sympathise with him. His character, Kyung-chul, the driver of a school bus, is one of the most chilling serial killers ever committed to celluloid, and it’s Min-Sik Choi’s note-perfect performance that remains in the memory long after the final credits.
Kyung is a killer of young women. He batters them insensible, and then takes them home where he has a concealed chamber in which he rapes and dismembers them. One snowy night he abducts and kills a pregnant young woman trapped in her broken down car. She is the fiancee of Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee), a government agent who swears to make her killer suffer more pain than she felt. Taking two weeks off work he acquires copies of the police files on the chief suspects from his fiancee’s father, a retired police chief, and quickly discovers that Kyung-chul is the killer.
Soo-hyeon stumbles across Kyung-chul’s lair just as he is about to rape a schoolgirl he has abducted from his bus, but instead of taking Kyung-chul into custody he savagely beats him. He then forces a tracking and listening device down the unconscious killer’s throat and leaves a sum of money in an envelope. Upon awakening, Kyung-chul flees, knowing it’s only a matter of time before the police arrive, and embarks on a killing spree. However, he’s mystified when, each time he is about to assault a victim, Soo-hyeon shows up to scupper his plan and administer another severe beating. Eventually discovering how his nemesis always seems to know when he is about to strike, Kyung-chul determines to turn the tables on Soo-hyeon and exact some revenge of his own.
Although I Saw the Devil is a little too long at around 140 minutes, it proves to be a wholly engrossing, dark and violent tale, even though it’s pretty obvious where it’s heading once Kyung-chul figures out just how Soo-hyeon keeps finding him. The trouble with a movie like this, in which the line between good guy and bad is blurred beyond perception, is that it provides the audience with no moral anchor — a vital component if a story is to be emotionally rewarding. Apart from a brilliantly realised final shot, we never really feel any sympathy for Soo-hyeon once he embarks on his mission of revenge simply because in order to carry out his plan it’s necessary for him to become as sociopathic as his target. Added to this Byung-Hun Lee’s character allows himself to real no more emotion than, say, Arnie in the first Terminator movie, or Chris in Westworld. He seems to exist simply as an instrument of revenge.
His manner of revenge is also questionable. A number of people either die or are subjected to terrifying ordeals as a result of his decision to release the killer of his fiancee so that he can toy with him like a cat tormenting a mouse. While writer Hoon-jung Park ensures some of these victims are apparently deserving of their fate — two men Kyung-chul kills have a body of their own in the trunk of their car — others are entirely innocent, which kind of makes it difficult for us to root for Soo-hyeon. When he disregards the pleas of his fiancee’s grieving family to give up his mission, however, it does open up the movie’s internal debate on the moral dilemma created by the natural human impulse for revenge.
I Saw the Devil is a superior thriller which perhaps can’t entirely deny the accusations of misogyny levelled at it, particularly in the attention devoted to Kyung-chul’s attempted rape of the abducted schoolgirl and in the way that all the female characters are essentially portrayed as nothing more than fodder for Kyung-chul’s depraved and murderous desires. But the images captured by cinematographer Mo-gae Lee contain a ghastly kind of beauty at times, for example as a victim’s decapitated head, wreathed in black hair, is slowly revolved by the gentle flow of shallow waters, and although it does little to explore the questions it raises it at least raises interesting questions in the active viewer’s mind.