Fantastic Fest Review: Kim Ji-Woon's Confident 'I Saw the Devil'
by Jeremy Kirk
October 7, 2010
Those Koreans and their brutal acts of vengeance. Over the course of the past few years, the revenge film has become a staple in the South Korean film market with Park Chan-wook's Vengeance trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) leading the pack in terms of quality and style.
One of the latest films in this subgenre to come out of South Korea (I say "one of the latest" as this notion of Korean revenge was delivered at Fantastic Fest in spades) comes to us from Kim Ji-woon, the exciting and visionary director of A Tale of Two Sisters, Bittersweet Life and The Good, the Bad, the Weird. The film, I Saw the Devil, is nothing short of staggering, dark and confident in the way it portrays its character's motivations and actions. While it might not jump to the top of the list of Korean vengeance films, it certainly proves it has what it takes to rest comfortably next to the best of them.
The film stars Choi Min-sik (Oldboy) and Lee Byung-hun (Bittersweet Life and GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra) as opposing forces on a path to collision. Choi plays Kyung-chul, a serial killer who, in the film's beautifully and unnervingly constructed opening scenes, beats, captures, and kills a young woman whose car is broken down in the woods. What Kyung-chul doesn't know is that the young woman was the wife of Lee's character, So-Hyun, a Korean secret service agent. The young woman's body is found days later, and So-Hyun, devastated by his inability to save his wife, sets out on long course of violence and brutal vengeance.
I Saw the Devil wouldn't work as well if So-Hyun's journey to discovering who and what Kyung-chul is lasted the course of the film. What Kim Ji-woon's story does so brilliantly here is that he allows the film's protagonist to find the villain relatively early on. Once this occurs, and once we witness what transpires, we realize I Saw the Devil is not a film about easy resolution. If it were, the film would be about 60 minutes long. It isn't about one man wanting quick vengeance on the person who wrong him. It's about revenge being a dish best served not only coldly. It's a multi-course meal, one that grows in its intensity with every passing course. So-Hyun is a character who understands pain, and he knows killing Kyung-chul quickly would not provide the satisfactory amount of catharsis. He wants the man to suffer, long and hard, and Kim lets us revel in that suffering, as painful as it may be to watch.
What helps that is in the way Kim structures and shoots each scene. I Saw the Devil is one more shining example of Kim Ji-woon's abilities as a director. Though his films all come presented in varying styles (the darkness of A Tale of Two Sisters to the McTiernan-esque way he shot Bittersweet Life to the elaborately sprawling world of The Good, the Bad, the Weird), they are all offered with absolute confidence.
This is no less on display with I Saw the Devil, a film which at its very essence is about taking its time. The scenes are no less sleek and stylish than anything Hollywood has to offer, and they exude the absolute perfect amount of intensity the narrative requires of them. Sometimes there is so much heat coming off the screen, you aren't sure if it's more in Kim's style or So-Hyun's acts of vengeance, but there is no denying the level of suspense instilled in each and every shot of I Saw the Devil.
The film could very well lose some audiences once it begins its second half. It becomes scene after scene after scene of one man continuously entering another man's world and performing unannounced acts of violence on him. Once additional characters are introduced to this world, including one subplot revolving around cannibalism, the film could easily have fallen off its rails, lost its way, and crumpled into a train wreck pile of senseless action. Kim's direction, the certitude he puts into it, keeps this very thing from happening. Just like with The Good, the Bad, the Weird, it doesn't matter how strange it all gets so long as it is goes there with a confident eye. That is the very thing that happens in I Saw the Devil.
None of this would matter, though, if we weren't fully engrossed in the characters, and that wouldn't happen if the actors filling those roles weren't at their very best. Luckily, Lee and Choi play their respective roles with amazing fervency. Lee in particular must go from cool to searing sometimes in a matter of nanoseconds. He never fails to do just that, and that searing style, whether it is projected through violence or in the emotions he must convey of a man who has lost everything, is some of the best indignation seen in recent memory.
Choi, on the other hand, has less of a range to bounce to and fro on. It's less of a range, but that doesn't mean no spectrum exists for his character. Kyung-chul is the villain of I Saw the Devil, but the acts of violence conducted on him are increasingly brutal. At some point, you might begin to question if he deserves what is happening to him, and Choi helps push this feeling back down with deliveries.
With our trust placed fully in Kim Ji-woon's directing style, I Saw the Devil is a cool, confident, and sometimes stunningly beautiful look at how far one man is willing to go to find that catharsis within himself, the rage that builds within him and the idea that no one ever has "nothing left to lose". That idea comes to the forefront when that rage is acted upon, and I Saw the Devil portrays all of this with conviction and poise. Those dishes that come to us when vengeance is served are heavy, bulked by the solidity they create. At this time, there is no depiction of this more solid than what we are given in I Saw the Devil.
Jeremy's Fantastic Fest Rating: 9 out of 10