Even by Asian extreme standards, Kim Ji-woon’s I Saw the Devil is aberrantly graphic. It’s a bloody revenge film, that goes on a much longer than it really needs to. Even so, it exhibits the solid directing skills we’ve seen from him in the past, with movies like The Good, the Bad, the Weird and A Tale of Two Sisters.
In Devil, a virgin-ally innocent woman, gets a flat tire on her way back to the city. She had gone to visit an orphanage, it was her birthday. While waiting for a tow truck a serial rapist and murder named Kyung-Chul (Choi Min-sik, whom you may remember from Oldboy) brutally attacks her, and cuts her into pieces. The fiancée of this victim, Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee) just happens to be a secret agent of some kind, but he’s clearly a psychopath himself. He tracks down Kyung-Chul, and brutally tortures him, puts a tracking device in him, and lets him go. Kim Soo-hyeon follows Kyung-Chul, and like some sort of twisted superhero, he intercedes every time Kyung-Chul is about to re-offend. Each time, Kim’s torture gets more, and more brutal. At some point, Kyung-Chul finally discovers the identity of his attacker, and the two start a cat and mouse game attacking each other where it hurts, the whole time avoiding the police, who would end their disgusting game.
While I’m always for a good revenge film, even one with obscene violence (Kill Bill anyone?), the sheer magnitude of the violence was a bit too much here. Not to mention it continues on for one hundred and forty one minutes. That complaint aside, the repetitiveness of it all was a bit aggravating. It seems the same conversation was had over and over, followed by intense violence, then it was repeated. Unfortunately, this caused me to walk away from the film feeling the whole thing was a excessive, and a bit indulgent.
This is a shame, however, because there are some really fantastic aspects in the film, particularly in a tense scene where a cab, already occupied by another fare, picks up Kyung-Chul. The three in the car immediately become very tense, sensing something wrong, and brutally attack each other. The choreography in this scene is stunning. The camera exactness in the camera work, and the execution by the actors make this a stunning example of how great Kim Ji-woon really is. His ability to gross out an audience without gratuitous violence is evident in the more wordy scenes as well. This is particularly evident during a point in the story where Kyung-Chul meets up with a cannibalistic colleague, who inexplicablly seems to have a mentally stable (by all appearances anyway) wife.
People will inevitably make unfavorable comparisons to Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy. There are huge similarities, but the deftness of the filmmaking demands that it be respected in its own rite, despite the need for someone to have edited the film down to two thirds of its original size. The concluding themes of the dangerous nature of revenge seemed a bit trite (not to mention hypocritical), but there are more than a few thrills in I Saw the Devil, and fans of uber-violence and revenge will most likely be pleased. And even with its flaws, I enjoyed it quite a bit. Just be prepared to watch a close up of someone’s Achilles tendon be cut before going into this one.
In a side note, the brutal, and extremely graphic violence against women here makes last year’s Sundance film, The Killer Inside Me look restrained and tame. But there are no protests or outcries. Does this implicitly imply some sort of vague racism? Violence against non-white women seems to be a non-issue here at the festival.
Thanks to the strong directing we get a handful of really fantastic scenes and a number of thrills, which make this a wholly enjoyable film.