The Serial Killer genre of film has been done to death (no pun intended) and its been a very long time since I’ve seen a serial killer procedural that was any good. However “I Saw the Devil” is easily one of the best of the genre and definitely the best in at least a decade. Director, Jee-Woon Kim has previously done some good films such as “A Tale of Two Sisters” and last years fun western flick, “The Good, The Bad, and The Weird”. For his serial killer tale he brought in two or Korea’s best known actors, Byung-hun Lee who is very popular and known to American audiences as Storm Shadow from the Awful G.I. Joe film. The Other is the great Min-Sik Choi who is best known for the starring role in “Oldboy”, one of the greatest films ever made in my opinion. Two very high profile actors that are on screen doing some pretty daring and disturbing things that I’m sure no popular American actor would have the guts to do.
The story begins with Kim Soo-hyeon’s (Byung-hun Lee) wife being stranded with a flat tire on the road. To make sure we know she’s the perfect wife, she’s on her cell phone with Kim and explaining to him that she’s spent the day visiting an orphanage. Right away we know she’s destined to die. It isn’t long before Kyung-chul (Min-Sik Choi) pulls up next to the car to check on the girl. Soo-hyeon, who is a secret service agent of some type, tells her to wait in the car and to not let the man do anything until a tow truck arrives. He then tells her he has to start his shift and has to hang up. The scene then plays out like you’d expect with Kyung-chul attacking and taking the girl to his murder lair. She begs for her life and that of her unborn child but it does no good and Kyung-chul hacks her into little pieces.
Its typical genre fair and most people reading this I’m sure are assuming that Soo-hyeon goes out to revenge the death of his wife in a heroic manner but, you’re only half right. “I Saw the Devil” is less about the monster that Soo-hyeon is hunting and more about the monster that he becomes in the process. He tracks down Kyung-chul, beats the crap out of him before he can rape and murder a teenager, then forces him to swallow a tracking device. He then lets him go and spends the next 40 minutes just following him and showing up just as he’s about to do some awful thing so he can beat him. Soo-hyeon begins taking great pleasure in hurting Kyung-chul in brutal scene after scene that will literally make you wince and squirm in your seat.
Soo-hyeon underestimates just how clever Kyung-chul can be though and this is his fatal mistake. The last 30 minutes of the film are somewhat expected but they take some twists and turns that will shock at times. Again, its the change the Soo-hyeon makes that is the real story here and his decision to keep letting Kyung-chul go again and again has some dire consequences. The film takes it toll and punishes the audience throughout it running time. It will leave you emotionally exhausted by the time the credits roll.
Visually the film is stunning! Unlike genre films like David Fincher’s SE7EN, I SAW THE DEVIL isn’t afraid of color and uses it to beautiful effect. The lighting is dark and moody but uses color to heighten the visuals in a way you just don’t see in this genre. The opening sequence of the film is beautiful in its use of falling snow and the bright red blood against the whiteness of the ground. Director Jee-Woon Kim doesn’t play things safe and takes risks not only with the storyline but with many of the brutal murder and beating scenes in the film. The camera doesn’t shy away from the blood. Even though the film is beautiful to look at it, it doesn’t feel like a highly polished film where every element is controlled. It feels scary, tense and the violence is real and brutal. Everything plays into the storyline emotionally and has its purpose. We need to feel disgusted by what our hero is becoming and we do, we need to feel like our villain is a wild and cunning animal, and we do.
I have to give a lot of credit to the actors here, Min-Sik Choi is fearless in his portrayal of the serial killer Kyung-chul. He’s the right combination of scary, smart and crazy. There’s a sequence where he’s picked up by a couple killers in a taxi where he basically attacks the driver and the backseat passenger in a frenzy of stabbing. The camera whips around the car at a high speed inter cutting the out of control car in a sequence that will blow you away with its technical mastery!
Our hero, Byung-hun Lee, plays the role as someone who’s in shock. Someone who can’t let their emotions release until they feel like they’ve gotten their revenge. As a result we never really see Lee’s character truly react to the death of his wife until the final act of the film. Yet Lee’s scenes are full of emotion even without it since his eyes tell the story without his saying anything. The pain is written all over him even when he’s hurting Kyung-chul and there’s something to truly be said about a actor that can convey the emotions he needs to with nothing more than a look.
I SAW THE DEVIL, is truly a masterpiece of the genre and one of the best films of the year. The blu-ray is clean, the blacks are spot on in every scene. The director had full control over his lighting and colors even when the action on screen is chaotic and the best way to experience it is on blu-ray.