People have a bad habit of throwing Alfred Hitchcock’s name around every time a thriller exceeds expectations. The man’s name has become cinematic shorthand, a fast, cheap and easy way to say that a thriller works. However, as a stuck-up minor Hitchcock scholar like myself will surely tell you after he’s cornered you at a party, there is a lot more to Hitchcock then a tense chase sequence or a disturbing murder. For something to be truly “Hitchcockian” is rare. Just being exciting isn’t enough. It’s about playing with audience expectations. It’s about taking a story in directions so unpredictable that you feel like written and unwritten rules of storytelling are being shattered. It’s about finding the comedy in the most shocking of moments. To be Hitchcockian is to exist in a particular state of mind.
For my money, the only filmmakers truly embodying this spirit are operating out of Asia. While these typically violent and strange films may seem like a ludicrous jump from something like North By Northwest, I’d argue that movies like Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy and now Ji-woom Kim’s I Saw the Devil embody the Master of Suspense more than anything else.
Hitchcock would never have made I Saw the Devil, but I know he would
have dug the hell out of it.
Like Oldboy (and seemingly nine out of ten of all Korean films), I Saw the Devil is a revenge movie. Also like Oldboy, it is one of the least conventional revenge movies ever made. As the opening scenes play out, you just know where this thing is going to go…your Hollywood-trained mind will plot out the beats for you. You think you
know the plot of this entire movie.
But then I Saw the Devil takes a left turn that I will not spoil here, a left turn that involves some of the most shocking, amazing vengeance ever burned onto film. When this film starts to screen and when more and more people start to see it and talk about it, what transpires after the 30-minute mark may become common knowledge, but you’re not hearing it from me.
Here’s what I will tell: I Saw the Devil opens with the brutal murder of a young woman. A murder the ends with her lying in pieces, scattered in a creek bed. While most of her family grieves, her fiancee takes things in another direction. You see, her fiancee, played by Byung-hun Lee, is a government-employed secret agent. To say he is ruthless would be an understatement. To say that he’s going to find the man who killed her is a no-brainer. To say how he goes about prepping an ice cold dish of bloody, terrifying vengeance is what you won’t hear
I Saw the Devil is not a procedural or a mystery. The killer’s identity (he’s played by Min-sik Choi) is never not known to us. We see his face in the opening scenes. We see where he lives and operates. We see him selecting his victims and putting them through emotional and physical torture before killing them. There are a helluva lot of things
right with this movie, but most importantly, Min-sik Choi manages to make this character one of the most loathsome, despicable and frightening villains in recent memory. Anything less may have made us feel even slightly bad for what ends up happening to him during the course of the film. And things happen to him. Oh, do things happen to
Most revenge movies are about the quest to find the man who wronged you and to pay him back. I Saw the Devil is not about that quest (our super-spy hero is one of the more coldly efficient revenge-takers out there), but rather about the extent of revenge and how far is too far.
I’m sure everyone in the audience thinks (in movie-terms, not necessarily real-life terms) that this man deserves what’s coming to him. The real moral concern comes from seeing our hero enjoy his revenge a little too much, to see him becoming everything he hates. Sure, someone becoming what he’s fighting against is something we’ve seen before, but it’s rarely been handled so delicately and with such subtlety.
Forgive me if I’m making this sound like an arduous chore of moral questioning. Above everything else, I Saw the Devil is a hugely entertaining thriller, an inversion of the wrongfully accused man on the run flick. Our killer is completely guilty of everything he’s accused of. It’s like watching North by Northwest and rooting for James Mason to snuff out Cary Grant.
As bloody and unsettling as things get, the film maintains a sense of humor, finding comedy in the darkest, weirdest places you can possibly imagine. Without this disarming sense of humor, I Saw the Devil may have been an unpleasant chore instead of the ridiculous roller-coaster-with-a-broken-track that it is. It helps that Byung-hun Lee is as much of a badass as Min-sik Choi is a deplorable asshole. He doesn’t talk much (why should he offer any sort of reasonable explanation to the man who killed the woman he loves?), but he makes up for the lack of talking by punching and kicking and stabbing and slicing. His stoicism, rooted deeply in a dark shade of gray, reminds me of Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name. Except that he has a name, but whatever. This is my review.
I Saw the Devil is a chase movie, an action movie and a horror movie all rolled into one. This is filmmaking on a whole new level. Ji-woon Kim has made a movie that not only excels as a thriller but looks gorgeous. The beautiful compositions and shadowy lighting compliment the on-screen carnage in the best ways possible. One thing that makes Hitchcock’s work so exceptional is that no matter how dark or weird his subject matter got, he kept it classy. He never let it fall into B-movie territory. he never made a movie that didn’t look or feel like a real movie.
I Saw the Devil, despite its insane, violent subject matter, is classy, sophisticated filmmaking. In other filmmaker’s hands, this could have been exploitative trash. In Ji-woon Kim’s hand, it becomes a masterpiece.
I’ve seen more than several Asian films at Fantastic Fest this year and they all have several things in common: they’re all unpredictable, they’re all exceptional and most of them involve revenge. Seriously…if I’ve learned one thing from modern Asian cinema, it’s that pissing off an Asian is a bad idea. They will have their revenge and they won’t stop until you’re deader than dead. And they’ll look good doing it.