I’ll level with you guys. I Saw the Devil has put me in a bit of a critical pickle. On the one hand, the film is superbly made and acted, a fucked up top-form representative of its subgenre. But, on the other hand, I – well, I just didn’t like it very much. I don’t want this to turn into a philosophical jerkoff about the at-times precarious balance a film critic needs to find between personal taste and objective criticism, but I suppose I need to air out some things for the sake of clarity here. Mainly, I think it is relevant to note that I’m not a big fan of the modern Asian vengeance subgenre. I love Oldboy, but at this point I am not entirely sure if that is because the film is significantly better than its brethren, or simply because it was my first exposure to Asian vengeance cinema. I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but if forced into a corner of self-analysis, I might just be too damn American for these films. I was raised on the vengeance films of Charles Bronson and the like. Some assholes murdered your whole family? Time to get even! Those assholes need to die! In the end, you’re still sad, of course. Your family remains dead. But justice was served and now you get a film franchise. Objectively these Asian films have a much better message, but nonetheless, I think it is the morose and melodramatic “vengeance doesn’t pay” nature of the subgenre that I’ve grown to find uninteresting and monotonous. So it goes.
But CHUD isn’t my personal blog. I’m here give you handsome people the best guidance I can when it comes to how you spend your precious time and money at the movies. If you love Asian vengeance cinema, I have to imagine you’ll love I Saw the Devil. And I don’t mean that dismissively; it is an extremely well put together film, with some fucking awesome parts. But if you’re like me, you may want to skip it, because the film is quite long and doesn’t do anything particularly novel.
The film, from A Tale of Two Sisters‘ Kim Ji-woon, opens with the young wife of Soo-Hyun (Lee Byung-hun), a secret service agent, stuck on a lonesome road with car trouble. Then Kyung-Chul (Oldboy‘s Choi Min-sik) shows up to offer his help. Turns out his “help” involves rape, torture, and murder. Kyung-Chul, we soon learn, is a major psycho and a serial killer. He’s done this before and he does it again. But it seems he picked the wrong victim this time. Soo-Hyun vows vengeance, and with the assistance of his deceased wife’s father, a retired police chief, Soo-Hyun gains access to the police’s file of suspects. With sinister purpose he goes down the list until finally reaching Kyung-Chul. Once the two cross paths, they embark on an epic game of cat and mouse – of the Itchy and Scratchy variety – with Soo-Hyun dealing out an increasingly elaborate series of sadistic punishments to Kyung-Chul, only to let him go, only to catch him again. Rinse and repeat.
For lovers of extreme cinema, there is no denying that Kim Ji-woon delivers on the brutality and mutilation. There is a lot of it. Some rote, some inventive. The scenes of Soo-Hyun’s mini-vengeance on Kyung-Chul are often dark comic gold. Particularly great is an extended sequence of an already wounded Kyung-Chul in a doctor’s office, trying to continue his psychotic ways after being patched up, only to cross paths with Soo-Hyun once again. And despite a fairly straight-forward concept, the film doesn’t always go where you think it will. There is a pretty major plot addition midway through the film that really opens up Kyung-Chul’s background in a wacko way. But for me this mid-movie addition came at the point when I was wanting the film to start wrapping things up, not add a whole new dimension. At 144 minutes, I found I Saw the Devil 44 minutes too long. There was a movie in here that I was really enjoying, but the film overdid everything. Fans of the subgenre may not be bothered by this excess, but for someone who is hovering just below “casual fan,” the movie ultimately came off wanky too me. This wasn’t a complicated story full of numerous subplots. There is just no reason I Saw the Devil should be over two hours long.
The backbone of the film is the relationship between Soo-Hyun and Kyung-Chul, even though most of their interactions are fight/torture scenes. In typical fashion, Soo-Hyun is consumed by his vengeance. Had he just been a little less malicious, had he just killed Kyung-Chul when he found him, he could have avoided all the terrible things that eventually happen. But his retaliation has blinded and consumed him. These are the dangers of vengeance! But this cosmic karma is somewhat at odds with how much fun it is to watch Soo-Hyun sadistically go after Kyung-Chul. That I suppose can be viewed as appropriately cautionary, as all crime-doesn’t-pay gangster films have their fun party phase before things come crashing down. But Soo-Hyun isn’t a drug dealer. He’s a good guy, and he actually does some great detective work to find Kyung-Chul (saving a life in the process too). You feel for Soo-Hyun. Here is of course where I run into my own personal preferences, as I imagine some viewers may dig such an arc, but by the 115 minute mark I was no longer behind our hero. And once a viewer loses interest in the protagonist, a movie becomes a headless chicken running around the farm.
The one aspect of the film that unquestionably worked for me was Choi Min-sik as Kyung-Chul. I love this man’s face. Such a face can only be referred to as a “mug.” Few actors’ mugs can muster the same caliber of steely yet almost indifferent purpose as Choi’s. It was this face Choi wore to the hammer fight in Oldboy (one of cinema’s all-time great fight scenes). It is this face he wears a lot in I Saw the Devil. And whereas Soo-Hyun became increasingly less interesting to me as the film progressed, Kyung-Chul slowly becomes more interesting, morphing from a common thug to something akin to a movie monster. His bemusement and confidence, even in the face of severe injury, elevates this film from a forgettable slog to something I can at least respect, even if I did not truly enjoy it. And his final scene is epically memorable.
A 100-minute I Saw the Devil would have been something really fun, and potentially, at that pace, even something special. The ingredients are all there. The Itchy and Scratch stuff is a brilliant, twisted good time. As is the section where Soo-Hyun is violently moving his way down the list of suspects (a concept that frankly could be the plot of its own vengeance film); which features one of the most painful groin injuries I’ve seen in a while. Things just needed to be trimmed and chopped here and there, especially towards the end. After introducing the unexpected backstory and new situations mid-movie, the film then descends into predictability. You will know exactly how Kyung-Chul is going to retaliate, against who, and because of the nature of this subgenre, whether or not he will succeed. At 90-100 minutes this likely would not have bothered me. But at 144 minutes I need to be really invested in the story and characters. Fun can only take you so far.
One thing I can easily give the film is this – I am still thinking about certain moments and scenes in I Saw the Devil now. In the end, that is the best thing a movie can offer. So I enjoyed having seen the film, even though I didn’t always enjoy watching it. If that makes sense. This gets a definite recommendation for fans of the subgenre and Asian extreme cinema in general. I suspect it will quickly join the ranks as a lesser classic. For those who are just curious, maybe intrigued by the buzz you’ve seen on-line, I’d wait to rent the film. Who knows, maybe taking a little intermission at the 70-minute mark will help reignite the spark. And for those who aren’t fans of Asian extreme cinema, stay away. This isn’t the film to change your mind.