Release date: 29th April 2011.

‘I Saw The Devil’ film review

South Korean director Kim Jee-Woon, who previously produced the great 2005 gangster film A Bittersweet Life and the 2008 Eastern-style-Leone-Western, The Good, The Bad, The Weird, has made an instant classic crime epic, I Saw The Devil.

Kim Jee-Woon’s film, which stars his favourite leading man, the superb Lee Byung-hun (A Bittersweet Life and The Good, The Bad, The Weird) is so violent that has to be a profoundly moral film. The Friedrich Nietzsche quote that opens the film essentially makes crystal clear Kim Jee-Woon’s and scriptwriter Park Hoon-Jung’s intentions with I Saw The Devil: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.” Lee Byung-hun’s typically understated and intensely focussed performance is equally matched by his co-star, Choi Min-sik (unforgettable as the lead in Park Chan-wook’s 2003 film Oldboy), in his portrayal of one of the most unrepentantly depraved and venial psychopaths in the annals of cinema history.

The film opens one snowy, winter night. The car of Ju-yeon (Oh San-ha) the daughter of a retired high ranking police officer Detective Jang (Jeon Kuk-hwan) breaks down and she becomes another victim of the savage, misogynist serial killer of young women and children, Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik). When the scattered remains of the unfortunate Ju-yeon are discovered, her fiancé Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), a South Korean secret agent vows to track down the murderer himself.

Using his influence to gain access to the police information on the four highly unsavoury suspects for the crime, Soo-hyun uses all his training skills to methodically and brutally ”Ëœwork’ his way down the list until he reaches Kyung-chul. Discovering grim proof of Kyung-chul’s guilt, Soo-hyun has decided that simply executing the sadistic murderer will be inadequate vengeance: Kyung-chul must be made to suffer successively, unremitting bloody retribution, ever more painful than the agonising death he inflicted upon Ju-yeon. Soon the hunter becomes the hunter, and Soo-hyun learns, at a dreadful cost, the meaning of the second line of the Nietzsche quote; “When you gaze into an abyss, the abyss gazes into you.”

The less you know about the film before experiencing it, the better. Utterly compelling for the whole duration of its two hours and 20 minutes running time, I Was The Devil’s significance could hardly be more urgent and pertinent in these dark times of savage violence and merciless retaliation. I Was The Devil is not simply another stalk ”Ëœn’ slash movie. Objections will probably be raised that the film offers little more for the female characters than to become mere victims of male violence, but this is the harsh true crime landscape within which this stylised but highly principled drama is played out. Yet within the Grand Guignol style savagery and suffering of this very modern yet timeless revenger’s tragedy, Kim Jee-Woon and Park Hoon-Jung are not averse to injecting some jet-black gallows humour.

The film is beautiful shot by Lee Mo-Gae and lit by Oh Seung-Chul, which together with Mowg’s empathetic score, heightening the emotional impact of the film. These elements of the production are particularly effective during the snow swept night crime scene at the opening of the film when Ju-yeon’s body parts are discovered. Choi Min-sik gives an utterly selfless, totally convincing and chilling performance as the completely unfeeling killer. The rest of humanity is simply just to be used for his gross, selfish gratification or is an inconvenient obstacle to be eliminated. But this is no clichéd drooling Hollywood psychopath and Choi Min-sik’s consummate dexterity renders Kyung-chul character as frighteningly all too human, making him even more terrifying. Lee Byung-hun’s character, in a completely different way, is as unsettling as Kyung-chul. You soon realise that he is really capable of anything and his deeply internalised feelings of grief, rage and loss are even more shocking when they finally explode from within him.

If you can take it, Kim Jee-Woon’s blood splattered I Saw The Devil is ultimately a very rewarding cinematic experience, fashioned by a filmmaker at the very top of his game. Fervently hope and prey that this brilliant, shocking film is not desecrated with an undoubtedly execrable American remake.

Copyright © Ian Johnston 2011

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