Look Behind You!
Finally one of Korea's cinematic gems over the last year has made it to our shores, and it's better late than never to experience it on the big screen no less. For fans of gritty cop thrillers in the same vein as Se7en and Memories of Murder, I Saw The Devil serves up an engaging, disturbing narrative in similar veins, but surpasses with its intensity, characterization, and shocking imagery that even made me squirm in my seat (and I pride myself at not squirming easily). Some may dismiss it as shock jock tactics, but director Kim Jo-woon's film is anything but, paring down emotions to its rawest when dealing with a tale of vengeance.
Heartthrob Lee Byung-hun (who was here in June recently for ScreenSingapore) plays Soo-hyun, an elite secret agent whose wife suffered the misfortune of being under the crosshair of serial killer Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik of Oldboy fame), who brutally assaults and hacks her up. Promising that her killer will suffer an equally unsurmountable amount of pain, he embarks on a one man vigilante mission, with the help of his father-in-law, an ex police chief, to narrow down the list of suspects upon whom he delivers punishment without remorse, even for those who were not the culprits, but nasty people nonetheless.
It's plays on the notion of how it takes a thief to catch a thief, and here, just what would one do when you have someone who has done you great wrong and caused unforgivable pain, in your sights and in your captivity. In most revenge flicks, the score's settled in one scene. Here, there's allowance like the monologue of any villain of a B-movie, where it's allowed to continue repeatedly, just so that one can dish out punishment repeatedly as well, thinking it can help to ease the pain, or does it? Maybe Batman fans will come to appreciate Soo-hyun's behaviour, and understand the thin line that the hero treads on, vying dangerously close to the tipping point where it's so easy to become the monster one is set out to capture, and how the act of vengeance alone cannot change anything.
And what more when the villain is a sick psychopath with absolutely no morals, values, nor remorse felt, taking pride in taunting and boasting the sick things he had done. Choi Min-sik plays his character Kyung-chul to perfection, a live wire that can become explosive at any minute, armed to the teeth with weapons he doesn't wait to utilize, and a modus operandi that's effectively simple to execute, preying on beautiful nubile women just because he can. Choi Min-sik succeeds in making you hate the character, yet cringe in fear each time he appears on screen. It's the suspense built by the director which is top notch, allowing plenty of riveting moments where you'll be secretly hoping for Soo-hyun to show up each time, and save the day, only that Soo-hyun has his own hidden agenda to let the sickness continue, in order to deny the killer (just who is the killer and the devil here?) the pleasure that he seeks to gain.
Which is what made this film pretty amazing in my books, as it explores how one doesn't necessarily get to win outright in this brilliant cat and mouse setup, where one doesn't know when to stop and let up, of getting into the kick of being in power and calling the shots. It presents this moral dilemma of how overconfidence and underestimation sets someone up for a fall, of trying to go one up against the other that nobody wins in the end, with what I felt was a terrible lose-lose situation either character suffered because they got in each other's way through fate, degenerating into the final act in pretty much tit for tat fashion. It's never conventional the way things develop in this story with its fair share of collateral damage in the story, which allowed for a number of side and supporting characters to extend the narrative a little bit longer, such as Kyung-chul's cannibal buddy entering the picture.
Some may take a little offense at how indulgent this film can be with its violent scenes, since there are lingering, unflinching shots at some of the most gruesome ways one can violently pummel another human being in very direct methods which you'll rarely see on screen, and makes the Saw series look tame in comparison. Take a long a barf bag if you must, since there are many scenes of mutilation, bashing ins, dismemberment and the likes that will make you feel terribly uncomfortable, enough to put you into the shoes of the victims and feeling the kind of pain that is inexplicably caused, all just because you happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and trusting a stranger all too easily sometimes no thanks to circumstances.
The edition shown here is the Director's Cut, or the International Version which is a lot more gorier than the Korean theatrical release which had to be tapered down, although the latter version did have a sex scene (which is one of the primary reasons for its longer run time) that added a litle dimension as to the allegiance and clarity of a small supporting character who pops up midway through the film. It's a complete package of thrills and spills, with excellent production values all round and some of the best character actors in Lee Byung-hun and Choi Min-sik going up against each other already making the ticket price worthwhile, especially with Choi Min-sik coming out of self imposed exile from films will tell you something unique he sees in this film to want to do it.
I Saw The Devil opens here on 15 September. Do not miss this, even if you have watched it somehow before, nothing beats experiencing it on a big screen. Definitely highly recommended as it goes into my books as one of the best in its genre, and of this year.