Review of “I Saw the Devil”

Choi Min-sik, Oh San-ha (photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

For years, I have had a love/hate relationship with Asian horror films. Lately, the relationship has gotten much better, but I had to put in a lot of effort to get it to this point. Initially, the trouble started around the time when “Ringu” and “Ju-on” ( and their American equivalents “The Ring” and “The Grudge”) became popular. I liked the visual style, atmosphere, and the serious tone, but I felt that the storyline in both of those films was just “eh”. That’s the only way I could sum it up, by shrugging my shoulders and saying “eh”. They were decent films and well made, but I felt that the stories were commonplace and were not all that impressive – or scary for that matter. I know I am a finicky audience member because I have seen a lot of horror films and I like my horror to be off-of-the-beaten-path, but even so, I didn’t get what all of the fuss over Asian horror was about.

So, I continued along and tried a few Asian films every now and then. I watched the Hong Kong version of “The Eye” and I felt “eh” about that too. I watched “The Host” and I wasn’t totally happy with that either. Not a bad film, but it lacked a solid identity. It tried to be an infection film and a monster movie, but it mainly turned out to be a well-made Sy-Fy Channel/Asylum movie. Although, “The Host” did have an original storyline and didn’t have the prerequisite “-oid”, “dino-“, “mega-“, or “vs” in the title.

Despite my frustration, I pressed on and dug a little deeper. I watched “Reincarnation” (one of the original After Dark Horrorfest films) and I thought it was better that what I had been watching but it still wasn’t spectacular. Shortly after, I watched “3 Extremes” (the first one) and I actually liked it. The film contained three bizarre and interesting stories that were about something other than ghosts enacting revenge by crawling out of TVs, walls, and bathtubs (yes, I know, one tale is about revenge, but it is revenge performed by a human psychopath).

Then came the day when a friend showed me “Battle Royale”. Finally, I was fulfilled by an Asian horror film and I began to realize what all of the fuss was about. My friend actually set me on the right course and told me that I had to dig even deeper. He explained that the popular films coming out of Asia were the ones that had mass appeal for a mass American audience. They weren’t necessarily the best that Asian horror has to offer. He was right. There were some incredible Asian horror films out there and one in particular changed my whole attitude towards the subgenre.

About a year ago, I saw “Oldboy” for the first time. It totally floored me. It was the best Asian horror film that I had seen (it is much more than horror, but that’s the easiest way to put it). It’s epic, disturbing, beautiful, and the story is totally enthralling. I loved it so much that I considered it to the best South Korean horror film That is… until now. Until I watched “I Saw the Devil”. Now, I consider “Oldboy” to be one of the best horror films to come out of South Korea.

Kim In-seo (photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

“I Saw the Devil” is a film from South Korean director, Kim Jee-woon. It is about a highly-trained government agent (played by Lee Byung-hun) whose pregnant wife is murdered by a serial killer (played by Choi Min-sik). The agent is devastated and after taking some vacation time, he begins to track down his wife’s killer. The agent finally catches up to the killer, right before he claims another female victim. The agent beats the killer senseless and injures him, but lets the killer live. When the killer comes to, he starts to realize what is going on. The rest of the film is about the hunter becoming the hunted and as this plays out, the nature of revenge is fully explored.

First off, one of the strong points of the film is that it is not too “heady” or preachy in its exploration of revenge. The agent is torn up by his wife’s murder and he wishes to enact revenge on the killer. However, it gets to the point where the agent is almost reluctant to keep going, almost wishing for someone to tell him to stop. There’s a nice scene where he actually breaks down in tears and you get the sense that he’s thinking, “What the hell am I doing? Is this what I wanted? Am I satisfied now?” The film poses many interesting questions like that and it is done in an entertaining way.

As far as the serial killing goes, it is familiar territory but it is very well-done. The killer’s mother and father think that he is strange but don’t know about his hidden life as a killer. He is a cannibal and he is friends with other killers who are cannibals. He kills simply out of lust for the killing and it seems like he can’t stop. However, the really interesting thing about the serial killer is that he doesn’t care about any human and he really has nothing to lose. As the film progresses, this becomes a dilemma for the agent and the following questions are posed: What do you take away from a killer who cares about nothing? How do you inflict pain and loss on this guy?

Those are interesting thoughts and the superb acting helps bring those thoughts to the surface. Lee Byung-hun (as the agent) has a nice discipline and stoicism about him that sets up some powerful emotion moments where he breaks down. He is highly focused on his mission but you can see that it is torturing him on the inside. Choi Min-sik (as the killer) is awesome and he is a thrill to watch. I did say that the serial killer content is familiar, but Min-sik’s acting makes it interesting and fresh. He has the perfect combination of charm, a friendly face, and the bloodlust of predatory animal. Despite some predictability in the overall film, Min-sik has an unpredictable quality where you are not sure what he is going to do in each situation. Plus, you forget all about his character in “Oldboy”. He is that good in this. These two main actors also have a fantastic supporting cast, which brings out the best in this film.

Lee Byung-hun (photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

Yes, this is predominantly a thinking man’s horror film and there is a lot of “meat” to it. However, another strength of the film is that it still manages to deliver thrills and horror. It has a very nice balance which runs from the “high” philosophical musings of revenge down to the graphic, depraved violence of the lowest level of humanity. There is something for everyone in this film – you get both substance and style.

One incredible scene – that I have to draw attention to – demonstrates that sub-human, depraved type of violence. It’s after one of the agent’s encounters with the killer. After escaping and making it to the nearby highway, the killer hails a taxi that just happens to be travelling on the lonesome stretch of road. After chatting with the driver and passenger for few moments, the killer makes his intentions known and he proceeds to stab both of them to death. As he is stabbing the two men, the camera follows the action by moving around the whole frame of the cab (it looks like they constructed the interior of a cab on set and slowly rotated it as the camera was rolling). The blood spray is horrific, the violence is jarring, and it’s a lovely scene. In fact, it’s one of the best kill scenes that I’ve ever experienced in a horror film. It’s beautiful and it is a nice contrast to the thought-provoking material of the film.

As one can tell, I highly recommend “I Saw the Devil”. It is epic, it is much more than horror, it crosses many genres, gives excellent food for thought, gives some gory thrills, the cinematography is flawless, and it leaves you feeling satisifed with the experience. The only drawbacks are the predictability, the typical background of the killer, and the ending  – which felt more like an epilogue then a climax. But after thinking about it, the ending does make a lot of sense because it fits in with the overall message of the film, regarding the nature of revenge. See that, I’m still thinking about the film. “I Saw the Devil” definitely sticks with you and it is worth every moment of your time.

Review and Quick Byte by Peter Syslo  

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