Hey look! I’m reviewing another very violent foreign language film! I feel like I do one of these at least once a month. Not really representing world cinema as well as I probably should. Still, if you wanna see someone get their Achilles tendon cut in a nice protracted close up then there’s only one place to go really. South Korea!!! No that one shot in Kill Bill doesn’t count. Way too fast and doesn’t do the sheer pain of such an attack true justice. Oh, here’s my review for Jee-Woon Kim’s I Saw The Devil….
Revenge thrillers have been a staple of Hollywood for years. It’s one of those base subjects that, when handled well, can provide a gripping story with a protagonist that you can really get behind. Who doesn’t wanna see someone dish out street justice on the scum that defiled their daughter? South Korea have taken the revenge thriller truly to heart over the years. It’s a theme that runs through so many of their most successful films that you’ve got to wonder if it’s all down to some sort of built in desire to maybe strike back at a certain group of Northerners they’re not big fans of. The most notable of these revenge thrillers is Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance trilogy, Sympathy For Mr Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance. All solid films, except Oldboy which is pure awesome on celluloid. I Saw The Devil takes a few cues, and a cast member in Choi Min-Sik, from those films. It tells the story of Kim Soo-Hyeon (Lee Byung-Hun who you may remember as Storm Shadow in G.I. Joe… poor beggar), a special agent of some law enforcement group that’s never fully clarified, Basically he’s a government bad ass. His fiancée, Joo-yeon (Oh San-Ha) is brutally murdered by Kyung-Chul (Oldboy’s Choi Min-Sik). This sends Kim on a quest for revenge, but it appears revenge is a dish he enjoys reheating despite the serving suggestion that it should be consumed cold.
What Kim does is toy with Kyung in much the same way a cat toys with a mouse before killing it. He catches up to Kyung as he’s about to make another attack and injures and best him to within an inch of his life, only to set him on his way with the money needed for medical support. Kyung is driven to kill though and despite the quite clear indication that he should probably lay low or maybe stop all that murdering business it’s not long before he’s on the prowl for his next victim. And that’s where Kim will strike again. Catch and release seems to be the order of the day for Kim and it’s a method that takes Kim down some dark alleys. Is he really after revenge or does he see this as a chance to live out some dark desires he’s had all along? You can probably tell where this gradually heads, I Saw The Devil isn’t exactly unpredictable.
The films hinges entirely on questions of the nature of revenge and power. On the idea of hunter and the hunted and of the nature of animals. That’s essentially what Kyung is and what Kim becomes, animals out to feed their needs regardless of what would be the smart thing to do. Remember that the whole time this story progresses that it is entirely within Kim’s power to bring Kyung to justice. He finds him very quickly, with evidence, but decides he has other plans. The idea that a man who is meant to uphold some sort of semblance of justice in his daily life can through that all out of the window when his fragile emotional state is shattered keeps you engaged in the film for it’s full 141 minute run time. It also helps that the two leads are very strong actors, despite what Lee’s appearance in G.I Joe would have you believe. Also, by god is it violent.
I’m sure some of you have watched Dexter. You’ve seen how a show that really isn’t under pressure to shy away from gore but always keeps the bloody moments to a minimal. You rarely see the really gory stuff. A severed head maybe but even the first seasons array of body parts were minus any blood. Kyung has a similar MO to Dexter, minus the doing it for good reasons of course. He knocks out his victims, takes them to a prepared room and then chops them up whilst they’re alive. He is messy though and his method involves a few squeamish moments. This isn’t gory on the level of some horror films but in some scenes, such as the previously mentioned Achilles tendon severing scene, the detail is quite close up and gruelling. The film was edited quite a bit back in its homeland of South Korea. A country that had little problem with the removal of teeth in Oldboy or the slow torture of a man in Lady Vengeance. Coincidentally both men involved were Choi Min-Sik.
The film is slickly shot and produced although some less natural lighting could have helped a few scenes have a bit more pop. The only major issue I had with the film is of how little we know about Kim by the time he goes on his quest for revenge. We know his job, how much he loved his fiancée (Which was actually well put across in just one phone-call, and that’s about it. No indication that he is maybe obsessively inclined or maybe a past in hunting. A sequence where he tracks down a criminal of some kind and maybe toys with him a little before arresting him would have helped. Although admittedly that would have gotten in the way of the flow of the early scenes.
As it is I Saw The Devil is a well made and engaging thriller. It’s not up there with say Oldboy or Leon it is a very compelling, dark and intelligent film. Much like Law Abiding Citizen it makes a few character missteps which shake the story’s foundations a little but it’s nothing that can’t be looked past.