“I Saw the Devil” is as beautifully crafted as it is brutal. Itʼs a harrowing tale of revenge and the boundaries between justice and evil. Itʼs not really a horror movie, even though there are horrifying scenes, and itʼs not really an action movie even though there are some highly impressive fight scenes. This film is more of an anti-torture porn movie. If you would like to see the villains from “Saw”, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, and “Hostel” tortured instead of doing the torturing, thatʼs pretty much “I Saw the Devil.”
The film stars Kim Soo-Hyeon (Byung-hun Lee) as a secret agent whose pregnant fiancee is murdered by an incredibly sinister maniac Kyung-Chui (Min-sik Choi). After his fianceeʼs death, Kim requests 2 weeks off. Heʼs granted the time and is urged to take more if he wants it. Instead of grieving, he immediately compiles as much information on suspects who could have killed his fiancée. Then the hunt begins.
One after the other, he stalks down his prey, pounds the shit out of them, and moves on to the next suspect. Eventually he finds Kyung-chul and quickly discovers heʼs the one responsible for sawing his significant otherʼs head off. So does he turn him into the authorities? Nope. He pummels him to near death, gives him a small stack of cash, implants a tracking device, and then lets him go free.
Death is too quick of a punishment for a man like Kyung-chul, so Kim decides to make his life a living hell. He stalks Kyung-chul and extinguishes any form of pleasure he can find. He will wait until Kyung-chul becomes comfortable and then shows up to torture him in a variety of imaginative ways. To Kim, this is not about Justice. This is a totally selfish endeavor of revenge. As a side note, Kim may look like a scrawny desk clerk, but he is quite the opposite. Kim and Kyung-chul duke it out a few times, and Kyung-chul is outclassed every time.
Even though Kim seems more like a suitable lead for audiences to follow, Kyung-chul is featured just as much as Kim. Heʼs played by Min-sik Choi whoʼs best known for starring in 2003ʼs Oldboy (If you havenʼt seen it, stop whatever youʼre doing and watch it). He must be a fearless actor for he forges a character that is an utterly deplorable human being. You see his character go through some horribly painful events and I never felt one shred of sympathy for the man. So many actors try to bring some humility to villains, and I personally see none in Kyung-chul. To go to those depths of evil and still make the character entertaining and interesting to watch is an amazing accomplishment.
This is by far one of the best made films of 2010. The cinematography is sweeping and gorgeous, the screenplay is compelling, the performances are nothing short of impressive, and the pacing is steady. There may be a moment or two that drags but the pay off is well worth the wait. Keep in mind, this is a brutal film. Itʼs not an over-the-top stylized brutality, but a realistic “thatʼs probably what it looks like when someone is beaten to death with a pipe” brutality. That goes for the fight scenes as well. Kim bludgeons quite a few evil doers throughout, and the filmmakers went out of their way to make these quick moments of violence exceedingly entertaining but believable.
If you can stomach the violence and are curious to see how deep the rabbit hole goes in terms of moral ambiguity, watch this film. Fans of Chan-wook Park (director of Oldboy and Thirst) should be pleasantly surprised. You see Kim transform from a human being into something thatʼs primal, but at the same time strictly focused. Itʼs more of a character driven psychological study rather than a slasher film. Then again, if you want to watch a midnight horror movie with a lot a gore, youʼre going to get it. The shotgun kick will blow your mind.